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The UN, the religious right and the battle to define human rights

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.

Words by Andy Hazel

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 strengthen protections for LGBTQI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and 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 policymakers, 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 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, the World Congress of Families 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 The Citizen, 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,” Mr Jacobs added, a view shared by many involved in religious social policy.

He cites as one of the campaigners’ “greatest successes” the protection of Article 16.3 of the declaration, which states: 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 UN, 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 World Congress of Families co-ordinates 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 also been linked to the passage of laws outlawing homosexuality throughout Africa, and the failure of the Estrela Resolution — a proposal to treat abortion as a human right and standardise sexual health education — to pass the European Parliament.

“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.” — Larry Jacobs, World Congress of Families

In the opposite political 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. The group 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 co-ordinator Siri May. “We felt very grateful for the support of [ex-UN Secretary General] Ban Ki Moon. He became a strong advocate for universality.”

Meanwhile, the Alliance Defending Freedom joined the World Congress of Families in attaining UN consultative status in 2014, with its declared aim to “help craft language that affirms religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family. Chief counsel Benjamin Bull wrote: “[The Alliance] 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.”

“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.” — Siri May, Outright Action International

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

Cases for which the Alliance has advocated in the US, Europe and the Global South, most notably in Central and South America, have drawn accusations of human rights violations.

One key act during Mr Ban’s tenure was the creation of a Special Rapporteur for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. The inaugural appointee, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, is looking to identify instances where human rights are violated based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Mr Muntarbhorn only narrowly kept his role after the legitimacy of the office was challenged twice by the UN General Assembly, reflecting deep divisions within the UN’s membership on this issue.

“Vitit has a very focused brief so we’re excited to be working with him and other mandate holders,” says Outright’s Ms 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 woman 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 Ms May. “We feel very encouraged about his statements.”

Mr Jacobs concurs: “It’s a very exciting time. 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.”

► This story was also published by the newsagency InterPress Service.

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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