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UK government honoured anti-abortion figure before editing women’s rights statement | Global development

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The British government presented a vehemently anti-abortion former US envoy with an award for his services to freedom of religion just days before watering down a statement on gender equality to remove commitments to reproductive rights.

Sam Brownback, a former governor of Kansas who targeted abortion rights while in office and then became Donald Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, was given the award during the international ministerial conference for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) held in London last month.

Organised by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and opened by the Tory leadership candidate Liz Truss, the gathering has since become engulfed in controversy after a statement signed by more than 20 countries was quietly removed from the FCDO website and significantly edited.

Conference organiser Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for religious freedom or belief, with Sam Brownback in background, 5 July 2022.
Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for religious freedom or belief, was involved in organising the conference. Photograph: Courtesy of FCDO

It has now emerged that a number of participants to the conference, which Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for religious freedom or belief, was involved in organising, are known for their strong anti-abortion views.

Three, including one speaker, were from ADF International, the global wing of a US legal advocacy organisation considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), which monitors extremist groups in the US.

Founded by leaders of the Christian right, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has long opposed abortion. It writes on its website: “In 2022, the pro-life movement achieved what was thought impossible by many: the overturning of Roe v Wade. But there’s more work to be done.”

Other participants were from the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), a rightwing thinktank based in Washington DC, which, alongside the ADF, is pushing for more laws protecting anti-choice medics from performing “procedures in violation of their conscience”, from abortion to gender transition surgery.

Ján Figel, a former EU special envoy for FoRB, was among the speakers. Figel’s mandate was not renewed in 2020 after a group of pro-choice MEPs complained he had “undermined [the mandate’s] credibility … by showing highly problematic acquaintances with organisations opposing women’s sexual rights and LGBTI people’s rights.”

Figel said the MEPs’ criticism had been rooted in “false arguments … based on lies”, and added that he had nothing to do with the statement.

It is understood that Brownback, who received warm applause at the London conference, was given the award by the UK government in conjunction with the Dutch special envoy for FoRB, Jos Douma, in recognition of their work on FoRB around the world.

While in office, Brownback signed a number of pieces of anti-choice legislation. Last week, he bemoaned the decisive victory of pro-choice campaigners in a Kansas referendum on abortion, adding: “We fight on defending all life, mother and child, from beginning to end.”

Sam Brownback speaking at the conference, 5 July 2022.
Sam Brownback speaking at the conference, 5 July 2022. Photograph: Ottr Works/Courtesy of FCDO

According to one participant at the London conference, who requested anonymity: “The UK government says it advocates ‘freedom of religion or belief for all’. But some of those featured and celebrated at the ministerial don’t support this. What they do instead is use their ‘religious freedom’ as an excuse to trample the rights and freedoms of others. People like Sam Brownback and the ADF, who seek to take away others’ freedom of choice in this way, should be challenged, not celebrated.”

The conference is an annual gathering that began in the US during Trump’s presidency. This year it was held on 5-6 July.

Its agenda was centred on how to “protect and promote freedom of religion or belief internationally”, with topics ranging from the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China to the terrorist attacks of Boko Haram in Nigeria discussed by academics, analysts, politicians and faith leaders, including the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

But its aftermath has been controversial, since it emerged that its statement on FoRB and gender equality had been edited to remove commitments to “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “bodily autonomy”. The FCDO initially said it had made the changes to focus on key FoRB issues and to achieve a broader consensus of signatories.

FCDO minister Lord Ahmad
FCDO minister Lord Ahmad said last week the statement had been edited to become ‘more inclusive of all perspectives and views’. Photograph: Courtesy of FCDO

Tariq Ahmad, a Foreign Office minister and former FoRB special envoy, said last week the statement had been edited to become “more inclusive of all perspectives and views” and “to allow for a constructive exchange of views on all issues”.

However, the watering-down of the statement, which had been painstakingly worked on and signed by more than 20 countries, provoked anger in a number of governments, many of which are refusing to sign the modified version. It currently has eight signatories, including Malta, where abortion is illegal, and the UK.

It is understood that the pushback on the gender equality statement began the day after the conference, at a “next steps” meeting at Lancaster House, convened by Bruce. Among those present were Jim Shannon, of the Democratic Unionist party, and David Alton, a crossbench peer, who were also conference speakers.

After the overturning of Roe v Wade, Lord Alton told the Universe Catholic Weekly he hoped the decision would lead to “new laws and resources” in the UK.

Rachael Clarke, chief of staff at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said the vast majority of British people saw through the “fiction” that there was significant opposition in the UK to abortion rights. But words mattered, she added, which was why there was concern over the conference statement.

“I think what we’ve really seen when it comes to abortion rights is the power of words and the power of the direction that governments are moving [in] … I think what we really are concerned about seeing is any indication from this government or the next government that they are valuing women’s reproductive rights as less than where they are currently,” she said.

Clarke added that, with Bruce as special envoy, it would have been hard for the government to put out a statement on freedom of belief that was not inclusive of “incredibly anti-abortion views”. “[Bruce] is the most anti-abortion MP in the House of Commons.”

A spokesperson for Brownback said he had no involvement in drafting the conference statement or in organising the event. Brownback was “proud to be pro-life”, a stance that is “immaterial to his support for freedom of religion or belief”, he added.

“Ambassador Brownback has not tried to connect his support of unborn human life to the issue of religious freedom … Ambassador Brownback believes that anyone can support FoRB regardless of their position on abortion. At a time when people are being killed and persecuted for what they choose to believe, Ambassador Brownback believes that the FoRB movement best moves forward by focusing on FoRB and not diverging into non-FoRB issues.”

The ADF denies the accusation it espouses hate, accusing the SPLC of besmirching “huge swaths of well-respected, mainstream, conservative America” in that categorisation of its beliefs.

A screen showing the logo of the conference.
The conference’s agenda centred on how to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief internationally. Photograph: Courtesy of FCDO

A spokesperson said: “As the world’s largest organisation committed to protecting religious freedom, ADF International were proud to take part in the ministerial. Our current projects include defending girls in south-east Asia who have been abducted, forcibly married, and ‘converted’ from their faith; challenging the Russian authorities for prohibiting church communities from gathering to worship; and supporting those on death row for ‘blasphemy’ in Pakistan to escape to safety in Europe. We believe in the equality and dignity of all people.”

Nathan Berkeley, communications director of the RFI, said the thinktank worked to advance religious freedom throughout the globe and to defend those of all faiths who were persecuted.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We invited experts and representatives from a wide range of different fields and beliefs to the conference in the spirit of fostering positive discussion and collaboration on issues of freedom of religion or belief.”

Bruce, Alton and Shannon did not respond to requests for comment.



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The Netherlands: Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega escalates diplomatic crisis with US and Europe | International

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Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.JAIRO CAJINA (AFP)

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has decided to break ties with the Netherlands in what is the latest diplomatic feud to be sparked by the former guerilla. The Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday that it had severed all diplomatic ties with the European country because it “offended and keeps offending Nicaraguan families.”

The decision to break ties was made after the Dutch ambassador for Central America, Christine Pirenne, informed the Nicaraguan government that the Netherlands would not be funding a $21.5 million hospital promised long ago. The news outraged Ortega, who accused the ambassador of treating Nicaragua as if it were “a Dutch colony.”

“Those who come to disrespect our people, our homeland, they should not appear again in Nicaragua. And we do not want relations with that interventionist government,” he said during his speech on Friday, which marked the 43rd anniversary of the founding of Nicaragua’s repressive National Police. “We [the Sandinista government] continue to open hospitals, even when we are met with human misery. The human misery of a European country, the Netherlands!” he added.

Diplomatic sources told EL PAÍS that the Netherlands had suspended the hospital project due to the “mishandling of funds, lack of transparency, and the serious human rights situation in Nicaragua.”

“The Netherlands regrets the disproportionate decision by Nicaragua to break off diplomatic relations. We take a firm stand on the worsening democratic structures and human rights violations in Nicaragua,” Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said via Twitter on Saturday. “Other countries have also noticed difficulties in maintaining an open dialogue with Nicaragua. We will discuss our next steps with the EU.”

The clash with the Netherlands followed a week of heightened tensions with the European Union and the United States.

On Friday, Nicaragua’s Vice President Rosario Murillo, the wife of Ortega, also announced that the Central American country would not accept the new US-appointed ambassador Hugo Rodriguez as its representative in Managua. Ortega initially signed off on the appointment, but withdrew his support in July after Rodriguez told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he would continue to advocate for an end of human rights violations in Nicaragua.

“The United States has spoken out against these abuses, and, if confirmed [as ambassador], I will continue to do so, not because we have any intention to determine Nicaragua’s internal affairs, but because it is our commitment under the Inter-American Charter, which both the United States and Nicaragua signed in 2001,” Rodriguez told the committee.

Despite Nicaragua’s objections, the Joe Biden administration appointed Rodriguez as ambassador on Thursday. Ortega railed against the decision during his speech to police forces. “The candidate for ambassador to Nicaragua appeared before the Senate, and what did he do? He insulted and disrespected us,” he said on Friday. “So we immediately said ‘get out, get out and stay out, and he can continue yelling whatever he likes out there, but here in our country, our flag is respected.’”

On Thursday, in another speech, Ortega attacked the Vatican, Chilean President Gabriel Boric and Brian Nichols, White House Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who he described as a “poor Black man” with a “bulldog face.” Boric and other Latin American leaders, who have called for the release of political prisoners, were branded as “lapdogs” of the United States and the European Union.

And on Wednesday, Nicaragua declared the European Union ambassador, Bettina Muscheidt, “persona non grata” and gave her three days to leave the country. The decision was made after the EU delegation demanded freedom for Nicaragua’s political prisoners at the United Nations General Assembly last week.

“The EU profoundly regrets and rejects this unjustified and unilateral decision,” the European External Action Service (EEAS) said in a statement released on Sunday, a day after Muscheidt left Nicaragua. “The EU also profoundly regrets the disproportional and unjustified unilateral decision taken on Friday by the Nicaraguan government to cut diplomatic ties with the kingdom of the Netherlands and expresses its unwavering support to the Dutch government,” it added, warning that it would respond in a “firm and proportional manner.”

In recent months, Nicaragua has also rejected all proposals for dialogue, including those put forward by Pope Francis, Colombian President Gustavo Petro and the US government.

“Ortega’s strategy is to escalate the crisis to a point where only the use of force will solve it, but he knows very well that the use of force is not an option the international community is going to consider,” Eliseo Núñez, a former opposition deputy in Nicaragua, told EL PAÍS. “Everyone believed that they could push Ortega to the brink of the abyss, but he has taken the international community to that brink and is forcing it to choose between two options: a global economic blockade, which would collapse Nicaragua, or to sit back and wait to see what happens.”

Some analysts believe that Washington is seeking to exhaust all diplomatic routes with Nicaragua via Ambassador Rodriguez in order to justify future action against the country, such as expelling it from the DR-CAFTA free trade agreement.

“Ortega has been using vulgar, racist and blasphemous rhetoric,” Arturo McFields, Nicaragua’s former ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), told EL PAÍS. “It is a narrative that is aligned with Russia’s foreign policy. Right now, Russia is facing NATO, the United States and the European Union. Ortega is sticking in a parasitic way to the foreign policy of Moscow and China.”

McFields recalled that Nicaragua was one of the seven countries that did not want the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to appear remotely at the United Nations General Assembly. “I believe that in the next few days, Ortega is going to break diplomatic relations with other countries in the European Union,” said McFields.

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Afghans left in legal limbo in Greece while ‘real refugees’ helped to settle | Migration and development

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It is 3.30pm and Suna Hamanawa, 25, is doing what she and dozens of other Afghan mothers do most days: whiling her time away on a park bench in Viktoria Square, a scruffy plaza in central Athens, as her children play around her. Like almost every other asylum seeker, she is relieved to be in Greece.

“We’re better here, we’re safer here even though me and my husband and our first little one [initially] spent 10 months in Moria,” she says, screwing up her face at the memory of the notoriously overcrowded and fire-ravaged refugee camp on Lesbos.

“But every day, in its own way, is a fresh hell. The Greek government does nothing. It just keeps saying ‘wait, wait, wait’. And that’s what we do all day, every day. Wait for our papers, wait for our travel documents. Wait for freedom.”

A year after Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban, Greece continues to be the first port of call for thousands of people fleeing the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis. After Ukrainians, Afghans account for the second-largest group of asylum applicants in the EU and by far the biggest in Greece, where more than 37,000 – more than a third of the total number registered nationwide – have filed asylum claims.

Hamanawa, who arrived in Lesbos with her husband, Mohammed, in a dinghy from Turkey in 2018, waited four years to become one of the estimated 28,500 Afghans to secure refugee status – a protracted period of legal limbo that is vastly at odds with other refugees, not least those from Ukraine.

In a recent report, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) chronicled Afghan refugees’ difficulties in Greece and the serious impact on their physical and mental health.

Of the 192 Afghans monitored by the organisation’s mental health teams between April 2021 and March 2022, about 97% had reported symptoms of depression, while 50% had considered suicide, the IRC report said.

“Many Afghans fleeing conflict and persecution in their own country think their troubles will be over once they reach Europe … This is simply not the case,” says Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, the IRC’s Greece director.

“Instead, people face the stark reality of violent pushbacks from Greek borders, months or years living in fear of being sent back to Turkey or Afghanistan, where they could face untold horrors, extended periods trapped in prison-like reception conditions, far from towns and cities and an alarming lack of support to begin rebuilding their lives,” she says.

For the estimated 70,000 Ukrainians who have sought refuge in Greece, it has been a different story. After Russia’s invasion on 24 February, the EU moved quickly to issue a temporary protection directive to safeguard the rights of people desperate to leave the war-torn country.

Although relatively few Ukrainians have headed to Greece, the reception they have received there has been unusually warm, with senior officials often referring to the newcomers as “real refugees”.

It was vital, said the IRC report, that Afghans were also guaranteed access to full and fair asylum procedures and given “dignified” support with accommodation and integration.

“While the Greek government has welcomed refugees from Ukraine, by efficiently registering them, issuing legal documents and allowing immediate access to employment, Afghans in Greece, alongside other asylum seekers and refugees, continue to be isolated from the Greek society in which they seek to rebuild their lives,” the report’s authors wrote. “Even after receiving status, refugees have limited integration support.”

Afghan asylum seeker Khorshid Ahmadi and her daughter Leyla in Viktoria Square, Athens.
Khorshid Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee, and her daughter, Leyla, in Viktoria Square, Athens. Photograph: Helena Smith

The biggest barrier for Afghans claiming asylum is the Greek government’s controversial decision to label Turkey a “safe third country” for people not only from Afghanistan but also from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria. The decision has prevented thousands of people from being able to explain why they need international protection.

“We’ve been here for four years,” says Khorshid Ahmadi, 26, as she plays with her children in Viktoria Square. “My family’s request for asylum has been rejected three times. They keep saying we should return to Turkey, even if Turkey doesn’t take anyone back from Greece.”

As a result, she says, neither she, her husband nor their five children have legal status or any right to housing or cash assistance.

Greece’s centre-right government insists it pursues a “tough but fair” migration and asylum policy. Accusations of pushbacks – despite overwhelming evidence – have been strongly denied. But keeping asylum seekers at bay remains a priority. In September, the migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, noted that the country had blocked about 50,000 migrants from entering Greece in August alone.

Amid renewed tensions with Turkey, the public order minister in Athens claimed last month that every night about 1,500 people gathered at the land border with Turkey were attempting to cross as a result of Ankara’s policy to “weaponise” migration and push asylum seekers into Greek territory.

As one of Europe’s most southerly states, Greece was the main entry point for more than 800,000 Syrians when the refugee crisis first engulfed the continent in 2015. After the adoption of a controversial pact aimed at stemming flows between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, the influx dropped steeply.

As patrols have been reinforced, with the help of the EU’s border agency Frontex, the number has fallen further in recent years, particularly arrivals on the north Aegean islands facing the Turkish coast, where most asylum seekers at the height of the crisis were located. The decline prompted the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to boast last week that smuggling networks had been largely cracked.

International bodies have echoed the IRC in rebuking Athens for resorting to tactics of brute force to keep asylum seekers out.

Concluding a 10-day fact-finding tour of Greece in June, Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders, accused the Mitsotakis government of creating a “climate of fear”, not only for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing poverty and persecution but also for groups defending migrants’ rights on the ground. Illegal evictions of asylum seekers at land and sea borders had become a general policy in Greece, she said.

Last week, Mitarachi insisted the government would continue to replace open-air camps on frontline islands, such as Lesbos, with barbed-wire encircled “closed controlled” access centres, and would push ahead with plans to extend a border fence along the Evros land frontier with Turkey.

Mohamad Mirzay, Greece’s Afghan community spokesperson, who arrived in the country in 2006 at the age of 14, says: “Every day, we hear from families back home of Afghans being lost at the border.

“One of our biggest problems is that a lot of young Afghans whose asylum claims are rejected get into drugs, a problem we are now trying to address as a community. It’s all so very hard. Very few want to stay here, they don’t want to endanger their future. For sure, you could say, Ukrainians get very different treatment.”

Sofia Kouvelaki, who heads the Home project, an NGO that supports unaccompanied minors, said: “Ukrainian refugees have proved a point. In Greece, and in the EU, they have shown that if we want to integrate we can, and if we want to welcome people with a human face we can do that too.”

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Opposition Party of Bulgaria’s Ex-Prime Minister Borisov Leading in Parliamentary Vote

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MOSCOW (Sputnik) – Opposition party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), chaired by former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, is coming ahead in the snap parliamentary elections, Bulgaria’s Central Election Commission said after processing over 51% of the ballots.

The GERB and Union of Democratic Forces coalition currently has 25.64% of the votes, while the centrist We Continue the Change (PP) party, co-led by former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, is second with 20.87%.

In June, the Bulgarian parliament cast a vote of no-confidence in the coalition government and the cabinet led by Prime Minister Petkov was forced to resign. Attempts to form a new government failed.

Bulgaria held three snap parliamentary elections last year, as no party was able to form a government. In November 2021, lawmakers finally formed a four-party coalition between PP, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, There Is Such a People (ITN), and Democratic Bulgaria, ending a month-long government crisis. The elections saw an all-time low turnout of less than 40%.



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