The UK government is coming under growing pressure from European countries and human rights groups to explain why commitments to 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 the substantive changes” that were made to a paper that resulted from a UK-hosted conference on freedom of religion and belief, opened by Liz Truss earlier this month, the Guardian has learned.
More than 20 countries, including those now complaining, had signed the original text, which included a commitment to the repeal of any laws that “allow harmful practices, or restrict women’s and girls’ … sexual and reproductive health and rights, bodily autonomy.”
But those phrases were removed 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 had not been one of the original signatories.
In an open letter to Truss, the foreign secretary and Tory leadership candidate, published on Friday, more than 20 human rights, pro-choice, and international aid groups demanded the government reverse the deletions immediately and explain why they were made.
“At a time when abortion provision around the world is under serious threat, due to the reversal of Roe v Wade, it has never been more important for the UK government to stand up for sexual and reproductive health and rights and bodily autonomy,” wrote the organisations, including Humanists UK, the 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 move, and hope you could 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, the Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, was heavily involved in the event. Bruce is co-chair of the all-party parliamentary “pro-life” group of MPs.
The resulting, amended, statement on gender equality makes a commitment to challenging “discriminatory laws that justify, condone, or reinforce violence, discrimination, or inequalities on the grounds of religion, belief or gender and that restrict women and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of human rights”. 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 the chair and co-chair respectively of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), to enquire about and protest against the substantive changes to the statement and the way the changes were made.”
It added: “Norway has yet to make a decision on being a signatory to the amended version of the statement.”
The Danish foreign ministry declined to comment. Asked whether the Netherlands would be signing the latest version of the statement, a spokesperson for the Dutch foreign ministry said: “We are assessing the situation, together with likeminded [countries].”
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 came as “a big surprise” and a great disappointment.
“I saw the original statement as such a big step forward because this has been a very conflict-ridden area – the relationship between freedom of religion and belief and gender equality. For so many years, there have not been many attempts at finding synergies and overlaps or at demonstrating how these two sets of rights are actually compatible and in fact intertwined and inseparable. And I thought this statement was really a big step forward in that direction, showing that these two rights are not in opposition to one another but can actually reinforce one another. So I was really disappointed.”
Petersen said she expected the UK, as host of the conference, to fix the problem, criticising the process by which the statement had been amended as “flawed and unreasonable”.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, also said the government was duty bound to withdraw the amendments.
“The government must surely be aware that, given the recent events in the United States, abortion rights are under threat. To amend an agreed statement in such a manner, omitting these rights, is therefore particularly poorly timed,” he said.
“Unfortunately, this supplanting of individual freedom under the guise of “religious freedom” is an example of the right to freedom of religion or belief being abused in order to infringe the rights of others.”
Bekky Ashmore from Plan International UK, who has also sent a letter of complaint to Truss about the rewording, said: “The UK government has long been a supporter of SRHR [Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights] and gender equality globally, and we are concerned that with this move the government is failing to live up to its commitments to ‘boldy defend and progress SRHR for all’.”
The FCDO has been approached for comment.