Advocacy statements

FoRB, populism and anti-gender movements

  • Date / 2020
  • Location / Belarus
  • Relevant Institution / Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe

OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) III on Freedom of Religion or Belief: The Role of Digital Technologies and Civil Society Actors in Advancing This Human Right for All

Written Submission of Humanists International

9-10 November 2020


This year, a number of ultraconservative, populist governments in the OSCE region have continued to roll back fundamental human rights, leveraging religious arguments to support their cause.

Several right-wing populist leaders are pushing for religion to return to the public sphere, and for broad acceptance of their dogmatic, anti-human rights view on freedom of religion or belief. While it is the United States under the Trump administration that has led the charge to redefine freedom of religion or belief as an ‘unalienable right’, others have adopted the view that it is a right which primarily exists to reinforce an alternative morality based on “traditional family values” and “authentic” national cultures, to the exclusion of gender and sexual minorities, asylum seekers and migrants.

In October, 33 countries, including OSCE members Belarus, Hungary, Poland and the United States of America, published the nonbinding “Geneva Consensus”[1]. This is an obvious attempt to undermine foundational reproductive rights by taking the narrow view, informed by religion and not human rights, that abortions violate the ‘right to life’ of the unborn, all while appropriating secular language that suggests their aim is to “protect women’s health”.[2]

Another stark example of the nationalist populist co-option of religion to serve their broader nationalist project includes the backlash against the Istanbul Convention. Using disinformation, populist rhetoric, and appeals to Christian and Islamic morality, OSCE States such as Turkey, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia[3] have reframed the Convention as a sinister attempt by liberals to impose their “gender ideology” – a conservative catchphrase for LGBTI rights, reproductive rights, and the idea that gender should be separate from biological sex – on unwilling States. In connection with this, across Europe, gender studies programmes at universities have been systematically dismantled and academics have been harassed, resulting in a shrinking space for freedom of expression, academic freedoms and for critical thinking in general.[4]

The term “gender ideology” may have been invented by the Holy See, but the strategy of stoking fear around it is no longer solely a religious issue.[5] It is part of a wider political campaign against democracy, human rights and freedoms in Europe today. Resisting this requires States and civil society activists to reaffirm, in all contexts, a human-rights based understanding of the right of freedom of religion or belief. That is, freedom of religion or belief ends where discrimination begins.[6]


[1] https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/geneva-consensus-declaration-english.pdf

[2] In contrast, as is stated in the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 36 on the Right to Life, access to safe abortion services is a human right.

[3] https://ijrcenter.org/2020/08/06/turkey-poland-consider-leaving-istanbul-convention-on-violence-against-women/

[4] https://www.aaup.org/article/gender-studies-and-dismantling-critical-knowledge-europe#.X5lUKoj7TIU

[5] Kuhar, Roman, and David Paternotte, Anti-gender campaigns in Europe: mobilizing against equality (2017, Rowman and Littlefield).

[6] Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion of Belief, Freedom of religion or belief and gender equality, ​27 February 2020, A/HRC/43/48

Suggested academic reference

'FoRB, populism and anti-gender movements', Humanists International

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