The UK government is under increasing pressure from European countries and human rights groups to explain why commitments on abortion and sexual health rights have been removed from an official statement on gender equality.
Norway and Denmark have approached the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) “to protest against substantial changes” to a document resulting from a UK-hosted conference on freedom of religion and belief, opened by Liz Truss earlier this month, the Guardian learned.
More than 20 countries, including those now complaining, have signed the original textwhich included a commitment to repeal all laws that “permit harmful practices or restrict the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls, as well as bodily autonomy.”
But these sentences were deleted from a later version of the international pact, which is Currently online and has been signed by six countries, including the UK and Malta, where abortion is illegal. The country was not one of the first signatories.
In an open letter to Truss, the Foreign Secretary and Conservative leadership candidate, released on Friday, more than 20 human rights, pro-choice and international aid groups have called on the government to immediately reverse the cuts and explain why they were made.
“At a time when the availability of abortion around the world is under serious threat, due to the overturning of Roe v Wade, it has never been more important for the UK government to stand up for sexual health and rights and reproductive and bodily autonomy,” wrote the organizations, including Humanists United Kingdomthe British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), MSI Reproductive Choices and Amnesty International UK.
Expressing “serious concern” about the changes, they added: “We urge you to reverse this decision and hope you can explain why the change happened in the first place.”
The International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) was held in early July in London. The Prime Minister’s special envoy on FoRB, Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, was strongly involved in the event. Bruce is Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee pro-life group deputies.
The resulting amended gender equality statement pledges to challenge “discriminatory laws that justify, condone or reinforce violence, discrimination or inequality based on religion, belief or gender and that restrict full and equal enjoyment of human rights by women and girls”. It makes no mention of sexual or reproductive rights or bodily autonomy.
In a statement to the Guardian, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry said: ‘Norway and Denmark have approached the UK and the Netherlands, who are respectively chair and co-chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), to inquire about and protest the substantial changes made to the statement and how the changes were made.
He added: “Norway has not yet made a decision whether to sign the amended version of the declaration.”
The Danish Foreign Ministry declined to comment. Asked if the Netherlands would sign the latest version of the declaration, a spokesperson for the Dutch Foreign Ministry said: “We are assessing the situation, together with like-minded people. [countries].”
Canada, which prides itself on its feminist international aid policy, is also not among the signatories. “Canada is seeking clarification on the process undertaken following the conference to modify the original declaration and has not signed the new version,” said a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, James Emmanuel Wanki.
Marie Juul Petersen, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights who was close to the process of drafting the first statement, said the second version of the text was “a big surprise” and a big disappointment.
“I saw the original statement as such a big step forward because this has been a very divisive area – the relationship between freedom of religion and belief and gender equality. there hasn’t been a lot of attempt to find synergies and overlaps or to demonstrate how these two sets of rights are actually compatible and in fact intertwined and inseparable. And I thought that statement was really a big step forward in this direction, showing that these two rights do not oppose each other but can in fact reinforce each other, so I was really disappointed.
Petersen said she expected the UK, as host of the conference, to resolve the issue, criticizing the process by which the declaration was changed as “flawed and unreasonable”.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, also said the government had an obligation to withdraw the amendments.
“The government must surely be aware that, given recent events in the United States, the right to abortion is under threat. Amending a joint declaration in this way, omitting these rights, is therefore particularly ill-chosen,” he said.
“Unfortunately, this supplanting of individual freedom under the guise of ‘religious freedom’ is an example of the abuse of the right to freedom of religion or belief in order to infringe on the rights of others.”
Bekky Ashmore of Plan International UK, who also sent a letter of complaint to Truss about the redrafting, said: “The UK government has a long history of supporting SRHR. [Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights] and gender equality around the world, and we are concerned that with this decision the government is failing to meet its commitments to ‘boldly champion and advance SRHR for all’.”
The FCDO has been approached for comments.