The United Nations and the Religious Right​

Tolerance. Credit: Rebecca/Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

Tolerance. Credit: Rebecca/Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

By Andy Hazel

Religious advocacy groups have a long history of working with the United Nations, pushing back against progressive interpretations of the terms ‘family’ and ‘marriage’ as enshrined  in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That effort was seemingly rewarded in 2016 as more people voted across the globe for political parties promising conservative interpretations of both, in stark contrast to moves by some countries in recent years to legalise same sex marriage and enhance protections for LGBTQI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex] people.

In 2017, the battle to define these terms both as they appear in the declaration and in law is growing increasingly fierce.

Like most advocacy directed at UN or Washington policy makers, lobbying by religious groups typically takes place behind the scenes, with success often measured in terms of whether or not progressive social policies get adopted.

Two of the most active and successful players are the World Congress of Families (WCF) – with its longstanding ties to African, Russian and Eastern European governments, as well as conservative US  politicians –  and the legal advocacy group the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has  had many successes in international courts defending Judeo-Christian rights. Both organisations cite their consultative status at the UN as a key to their reputations.

WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs says that, given the current political climate, WCF and its supporters have cause for optimism.

“There’s been a fundamental denial over the last 50 years that the family is needed,” he told IPS, referring to the diversification of family structure away from the ‘traditional’ or nuclear model favoured by conservatives towards a more open interpretation. “Much of it is a result of the agenda of sexual revolution lobbyists,” he added, a view also shared by many involved in religious social policy.

“I think one of our greatest successes is protecting Article 16.3 [The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State]. Other groups are trying to redefine existing mandates in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the idea that family is ‘natural’ is one of our biggest successes.”

Pope Francis echoed these sentiments during his address to the United Nations, describing the family as “the primary cell of any social development”. While Pope Francis has preached acceptance and tolerance of homosexuality, he has never shown support for the non-nuclear family or gender fluidity.

The WCF coordinates conservative groups and has been linked to major international policy shifts, such as Russia’s law prohibiting the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relationships’, and Hungary’s ‘family-friendly’ policies. These moves have been linked to a rise in persecution of and violence against LGBTQI citizens. Members and associates of the group have been linked to the passage of laws outlawing homosexuality throughout Africa, and the failure of the Estrela Resolution to pass the European Parliament, a proposal to treat abortion as a human right and standardise sexual health education.

“We need to ensure that cultural reasons or ‘traditional’ values aren’t used to undermine the universality of human rights principles, or equal application of existing law in regards to everyone,” — Outright’s UN program coordinator Siri May.

In the opposite corner to these groups, but likewise  drawing on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  as the foundation for its  work, is  LGBTQI advocacy group Outright Action International. Outright argues that denying the expansion of ‘family’ beyond a nuclear structure and ‘marriage’ beyond a heterosexual union violates human rights.

“We need to ensure that cultural reasons or ‘traditional’ values aren’t used to undermine the universality of human rights principles, or equal application of existing law in regards to everyone,” says Outright’s UN program coordinator Siri May. “We felt very grateful for the support of [ex- UN Secretary General] Ban Ki Moon. He became a strong advocate for universality.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom joined the World Congress of Families in UN consultative status in 2014, with its declared aims to “help craft language that affirms religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family. Chief counsel Benjamin Bull wrote: “ADF can now have a say when UN treaties and conventions are drafted that directly impact religious liberty and important matters related to the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.”

“No person – anywhere – should be punished simply for holding to Christian beliefs,” says Bull. Bull opposed Former UN Secretary-General Ban’s support for Ban’s LGBTQI rights arguing that it privileged “the demands of sexually confused individuals over the rights of other individuals.”

Cases for which ADF have advocated in the United States, Europe and in the Global South, most notably in Central and South America, have drawn accusations of human rights violations.

One key act during Ban’s tenure was the creation of a Special Rapporteur for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Inaugural appointee Professor Vitit Thingburam has been charged with identifying instances where human rights are violated based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Thingburam only narrowly kept his role after the legitimacy of the office was challenged twice by the United Nations General Assembly, reflecting deep divisions within the UN’s membership on this issue.

“Vigit has a very focused brief so we’re excited to be working with him and other mandate holders,” says Outright’s May. “We’ll be looking to provide him and other experts with the best information available.”

WCF’s Larry Jacobs is keen to point out that, despite being designated a ‘hate group’ and ‘virulently anti-gay’ by both mainstream news media and human rights advocacy groups, he does not condone violence.

“We are not anti-gay. Homosexuals are the people that need a natural family the most. We are the ones that want to help the victims of the sexual revolution, the victims of divorce, the victims of people who have lived a promiscuous lifestyle. I think the question about homosexuality is ‘how do we deal with brokenness?’ ”

But May contests this. “We know throughout history that family units are not about one man, one women and two children. That’s quite a western construct. There are many examples of same-sex couple families with children that provide love. Human rights are applicable to the individual, and family units are very important, but they should never trump the right of the individual.”

“What we know about gender-based violence and LGBTQI rights are that they’re needed to protect an individual that might be at risk from their family. They have rights and obligations within human rights law and those rights should never be used to privilege heterosexuality.”

Despite their marked differences, both Jacobs and May are cautiously optimistic about the UN’s approach under new Secretary-General António Guterres, a man who forged his political and diplomatic career balancing socialist beliefs with his Catholic faith.

“We’d expect the incoming Secretary General would have the same interpretation of human rights law and traditional cultural values as Ban Ki Moon,” says May. “We feel very encouraged about his statements.”

“It’s a very exciting time,” concurs Jacobs. “Even when his party went against him on abortion, Guterres stayed true to his faith and his values. He wasn’t afraid to talk about the sanctity of human life from conception to death, so this is an exciting time.”

A Day to Remember That Every Child Deserves a Chance

Emina Cerimovic is a disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

By Emina Ćerimović
NEW YORK, Feb 27 2017 (IPS)

The day I met Julija she was playing cheerfully with her baby sister on the floor inside their room in Kragujevac, a small town in southern Serbia. When she saw me – a stranger — on the doorstep, she smiled widely and stretched out her hands, offering a hug. As I held her, I could hear how difficult it was for her to breathe. I looked at her, she smiled and touched my face with her hands and only then did I see that Julija’s fingers were webbed.

Julija was born with Apert Syndrome, a rare genetic condition. Children with this syndrome have fused skull bones, resulting in distorted facial features, vision and hearing loss, trouble with breathing and eating, and learning difficulties. In Julija’s case her fingers and toes were not separated either, which made holding a spoon or picking things up difficult.

Her parents – Jasmina and Ivica – told me about their struggle to provide Julija with the health care she needed to stay alive and to develop. For three months following Julija’s birth in 2012, her parents used every penny they had to ferry their daughter across the country in search of specialists who could help. The repeated advice they received was not helpful: Place your child in an institution. It’s best for you and her. “One doctor even told us that it will be a torment for us to keep her with us and that we might not get anything back in return,” Jasmina told me. “As if my child was a burden for me. None of these doctors were thinking about what is best for the child.”

Emina Ćerimović. Photo Courtesy of HRW

Emina Ćerimović. Photo Courtesy of HRW

By the time she was barely older than 3 months, Julija had undergone surgery twice on her head and had spent a month in intensive care with pneumonia. Because of her severe breathing problems and her need for frequent specialist treatment that Julija could not receive in her hometown, her parents decided, with heavy hearts, to place her in an institution for children with disabilities in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, where she would have access to emergency care.

However, after only two days, her parents noticed a drastic change in Julija’s spirit. “She was no longer the child she used to be,” Jasmina told me.

After Julija spent 10 months in the institution with only short visits home, Jasmina and Ivica decided to bring her  back home. “When Julija is at home with us, she is one child, and when she is in an institution, she is a different child,” Jasmina said. “She has made much more progress [at home], in terms of her weight and everything else. Her intellectual development, too.”

With Julija back home, her parents worked tirelessly to find help. Ultimately, a relative in Australia made contact with a specialist at the Australian Craniofacial Unit in Adelaide. Supported by private fund raising efforts and the unit itself, in 2015, Juljia underwent life-changing surgery to reshape her skull to make more room for her brain.

When I met Julija in November 2015, surrounded by her loving parents, toys, and a baby sister, she was thriving and happy. Her parents told me she had put on weight and learned to sit, which she was unable to do when her parents brought her back from the institution. A few months after my visit she learned to walk  on her own. In November 2016, her fingers were unwebbed in a hospital in Belgrade.

A child’s ability to access health care needed for survival and development should not have to depend on their parent’s ability to fight for it. Every child has a right to health and health services.
However, Julija’s journey has only just begun. She will need professional support to learn to use her fingers. Her teeth are not growing properly. She still needs another facial and skull operation. She understands everything, her parents told me, but she doesn’t speak yet. And her breathing and her eyes have to be managed constantly.

Julija was not the only child I met in Serbia who was struggling to get much-needed health care. Hundreds of children with developmental disabilities, the majority of whom have a living parent,  are placed in large residential institutions where  they are separated from their families.  Unlike Julija, they don’t have someone who is working tirelessly to ensure their lives are the very best they can be. Instead, they are often neglected because there is not enough staff, and in some cases confined to beds for their entire lives, without any stimulation. Long-term placement of children in institutions leads to  stunted physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development.

A child’s ability to access health care needed for survival and development should not have to depend on their parent’s ability to fight for it. Every child has a right to health and health services.

On February 28, more than 80 countries worldwide are marking the tenth international Rare Disease Day, including Serbia. The Serbian government – and every government around the world– should mark this day by committing to provide all children with disabilities access to the health care they need to stay alive and to grow and develop just like other children. Julija – who was deemed a hopeless case at birth – just celebrated her fifth birthday with family and friends.