50.50: Feature

Anti-rights groups tried to take over a UN summit. Feminists fought back

Women from the Global South battled for gender equality and climate justice at the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women summit

Umyra Ahmad
14 April 2022, 10.06am

CitizenGo’s anti-abortion truck in New York during the CSW66 summit

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Richard Levine / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Feminist activists faced two key battles at this year’s session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, held over two weeks in March.

The first was a wave of opposition from anti-rights groups, who continued their cynical ploys to undermine rights relating to gender and sexuality. The second was in the form of inaction on climate change, from countries, mostly from the Global North, who consider themselves “gender champions”.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the principal global intergovernmental body dedicated exclusively to gender equality. It holds a summit every spring. Its agreed conclusions are adopted by consensus through intergovernmental negotiations, and affect how women in almost 200 countries access their rights.

Climate justice was the focus of this year’s summit, CSW66, held at the UN headquarters in New York. It should have provided states with a historic opportunity to strengthen upcoming climate agreements – such as COP27, the UN climate conference due to be held in Egypt in November – and concretely link them to gender and socio-economic justice.

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Yet one of the biggest stumbling blocks at this year’s event was the failure of mostly Global North states to address key demands made by Pacific and African feminists, echoing the same failures at COP26 (last year’s UN climate conference, held in Glasgow).

The absence of young people, Indigenous communities, women with disabilities, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and women living in rural areas meant there was a noticeable disconnect between the session in New York and the lived realities and expertise of communities most impacted by the climate crisis

Right from the start, CSW66 seemed to be a closed shop. NGOs, activists and grassroots organisations were given just two days’ notice about access to the UN building in New York. For people in the Global South who face tougher travel restrictions and resource constraints, this left no time to organise visas or arrange travel.

The resulting absence of young people, Indigenous communities, women with disabilities, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and women living in rural areas meant there was a noticeable disconnect between the session in New York and the lived realities and expertise of communities most impacted by the climate crisis.

Climate inaction is a feminist issue

Throughout the CSW66 negotiations, EU member states, Canada, Australia and the US – countries that are usually outspoken on gender issues – refused to address climate change as their historical responsibility. Because they pushed back against important commitments, the summit’s final text failed to reflect the urgent need for action and the key demands of Pacific and African feminists.

Wanun Permpibul, director of Climate Watch Thailand, said that CSW66 was also “a missed opportunity to carry forward the discussion on climate finance, especially for loss and damage, [… to help] those on the ground who have already been bearing the cost of climate change from historical emissions.”

Global South feminists are demanding that Global North countries compensate communities who have already lost their homes and livelihoods from floods, droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels. The most marginalised and most affected communities need to be prioritised, and funds need to be accessed directly by women-led autonomous groups.

Despite seeing themselves as champions of women’s and LGBTIQ rights, many Global North countries showed little regard for the immense and disproportionate impact faced by women and communities from the regions most vulnerable to climate inaction.

A number of these states, including Canada, Australia, France and Sweden, have recently adopted a “feminist foreign policy”. In cherry-picking and supporting only particular aspects of gender equality, while avoiding accountability for harm caused by their extractive, neoliberal and (neo)colonial policies, we might ask: is this label anything more than a branding exercise?

CitizenGo and anti-rights messages

Ultra-conservative anti-rights groups, obsessed with blocking progress on rights relating to gender and sexuality, tried to take up as much space as they could at CSW66.

One strategy they use to gain broader public support is the selective co-option of progressive agendas and discourses. For example, this year, groups including the US’s Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM) and Canada’s Campaign Life Coalition emphasised the need to reject “population control” as a solution to climate change.

But rather than outlining the colonial and racist nature of population control arguments – as feminists do – anti-rights groups use this narrative to deny the right to abortion and erase human rights for women, trans and non-binary people overall. Often aligned with conservative economic and corporate agendas, they have little interest in either causes of or solutions to climate change.

The presence of anti-rights actors at previous CSW sessions has been widely documented. They have set up shop in human rights spaces for years, since at least Beijing+5, the historic international gender summit held in 2000.

Rights at Risk’, a 2021 report by the Observatory on the Universality of Rights, explains what feminist groups have observed in UN spaces in the last decade: anti-rights groups are increasingly well organised, well funded and work across borders to infiltrate global policy spaces.

In the last week of CSW66, policymakers and politicians in New York were greeted by the sight of six buses carrying the anti-abortion message “equality begins in the womb”, alongside a demand to erase paragraphs on sexual and reproductive health rights from an early draft of the conference’s agreed conclusions.

The stunt was organised by CitizenGo, a Christian anti-rights group that originated in Spain but now operates internationally. Although it describes itself as a “community of active citizens who work together […] to defend and promote life, family and liberty”, in reality CitizenGo is linked to ultra-conservative political party Vox in Spain and controversial Catholic secret society El Yunque in Mexico, and has coordinated campaigns against reproductive health bills and policies in Kenya.

CitizenGo operates primarily through an online petition platform to push an anti-LGBTIQ, anti-abortion agenda, but it regularly carries out offline actions to boost impact too. These include the large anti-trans and anti-abortion tour buses parked outside the UN in 2019. That same year, a CitizenGo petition led to the coordinated harassment of a CSW session facilitator, who had more than 1,000 anti-abortion text messages sent to her phone.

Feminists fight back

There is some good news, though. This year, the activities of anti-rights actors were curtailed; those who had engaged in digital harassment or violence in previous CSW sessions were barred by organisers from accessing some of the fringe events held alongside the main meetings.

Anti-rights actors infiltrate human rights bodies to push back against feminist wins. Fortunately, feminist groups are many steps ahead

Anti-rights actors infiltrate human rights bodies such as the CSW to push back against feminist wins. They do this by copying the tactics of feminist and social justice movements. Fortunately, feminist groups are many steps ahead.

In this instance, in the face of huge challenges, feminists did what they do best. Through cross-regional solidarity and mobilisation, they tirelessly organised and advocated to ensure that their demands were at the centre of CSW66, and that states would not slide back on their commitments on gender equality and climate action.

Although the negotiated text fell short of feminist expectations, it at least recognises sexual health and reproductive rights, and makes an explicit connection with climate justice. This can be attributed to years of feminist advocacy, despite continuous objections from the usual conservative suspects, such as the Holy See and Russia.

Feminist and queer groups from Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga and other Pacific countries led campaigns demanding action for loss and damage caused by climate change, coordinating remotely and across time zones. Protesting their structural exclusion from the CSW space, African feminists launched the #AfricaDisruptCSW66 campaign, calling for a radical feminist rethinking of the UN.

Anti-rights groups claim victimhood

Although ultra-conservative groups failed to influence and push back on gender and sexuality related rights this year, they embraced the victim narrative. Anti-rights groups collectively circulated a petition, initiated by C-FAM, claiming anti-abortion groups had been locked out from CSW66 discussions by “powerful biased leftist groups” because “they hold a different opinion […] which amounts to outright discrimination and censorship of dissident voices.”

This is how organisations like CitizenGo operate: use shock tactics to gain publicity, await public criticism from pro-rights groups, and repackage that criticism into a narrative where they are victims of a ‘cancel culture’ waged by powerful feminist groups.

Such campaigns often attract support from conservative politicians with the power to legislate. A group of Republican members of the US Congress backed the CitizenGo petition in a letter to UN Women, which was published by C-FAM. These Republicans included Bob Good, who has launched a series of campaigns targeting LGBTIQ people, and Lauren Boebert, who has opposed federal laws to protect trans youth and reportedly made Islamophobic attacks against another congresswoman.

What’s frightening is that all this is taking place in the United Nations human rights ecosystem, a space created to advance human rights, hold countries accountable where there are violations, and strengthen protection of the rights of marginalised communities.

The threats to feminist agendas are many: from an organised anti-rights lobby to crackdowns on human rights defenders in many parts of the world; from powerful private-sector interests that prioritise profit over people and climate to governments hostile to multilateralism and the international human rights system as a whole.

Feminist activists continue to fight back even harder and to work in these spaces to advance human rights. The question is whether states claiming to champion gender justice and women’s rights are willing to step up and do what’s right.

This article was written with research support from Jeanne Hefez, senior policy and advocacy advisor at Ipas; Cynthia Rothschild, a human rights, sexual rights and feminist activist with a focus on UN policy and advocacy; and Anissa Daboussi, advancing universal rights and justice manager at AWID. It has been co-published with New Internationalist.

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