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WPUK submission to UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

We are pleased to have contributed this submission to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) with the Women’s Resource Centre

In brief, WPUK contends that the civil and political rights enshrined in the ICCPR have been undermined in recent years, particularly in relation to women’s freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The relevant government bodies, such as the Government Equalities Office, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have failed to take action to defend women’s civil and political rights. In some cases, the police have been overzealous in policing feminist and ‘gender critical’ users of online platforms such as Twitter.

You can download the full WRC submision here.

We reproduce our contribution to the submission here:

Submission of issues by Woman’s Place UK

 Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) is a grassroots feminist campaign which was formed by a group of women in the labour and trade union movement to uphold women’s sex-based rights and protections in the UK. Since September 2017, WPUK has held 26 public meetings across the UK which have been attended by over 3,500 people.

WPUK contends that the civil and political rights enshrined in the ICCPR have been undermined in recent years, particularly in relation to women’s freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The relevant government bodies, such as the Government Equalities Office, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have failed to take action to defend women’s civil and political rights. In some cases, the police have been overzealous in policing feminist and ‘gender critical’[1] users of online platforms such as Twitter.

Article 17

  1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.
  2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

 Many gender critical feminists have been subject to unlawful attacks on their personal and professional reputations as a result of articulating gender critical views publicly. Several feminist academics have faced protests on campus, defamatory statements online, and institutions they work for coming under pressure to dismiss them.

Professor Kathleen Stock of Sussex University reports that she has had her office door defaced twice with stickers saying that “TERFs[2] are not welcome here”, as well as having defamatory (later retracted) articles published in student newspapers,  a spurious GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation[3]) complaint against her (later found to be unsubstantiated) and Freedom of Information requests for disclosure of her emails.

Article 18

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief has been subject to extreme pressure in relation to gender critical feminists in the UK. Several high-profile cases of women losing their jobs or membership of professional organisations as a result of their beliefs have been reported in the UK press in recent years. A recent employment tribunal case (Forstater v CGD Europe[4]) highlighted the tension that exists between gender critical perspectives and the perspective of those who believe that gender identity is innate, and that people can be born in a body that does not match their gender identity. The claimant, who had lost her job as a result of expressing the view that biological sex cannot change, argued that her views were legitimate beliefs grounded in science and rational thought and that she had been discriminated against because of her beliefs. The claimant lost the tribunal as the judge ruled that her beliefs did not meet the test of philosophical beliefs and were therefore not protected by the Equality Act 2010. The case attracted significant media attention. The claimant was supported by high profile figures such as Martina Navratilova and J K Rowling who were in turn subject to online abuse and calls for their careers to be “cancelled” due to their support for the claimant[5].

Article 19

  1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
  2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
  3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

The current orthodoxy in the UK regarding gender and sex, as promoted by a range of lobby groups and trans rights campaign organisations, is undermining the right enshrined in article 19 to hold opinions without interference, to freedom of expression. Article 19 states that the right to freedom of expression includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. Yet in academia and in the media there are numerous examples of this right being infringed.

A recent House of Commons Library report noted that “Concerns have also been raised that there has been intimidation of those organising and attending meetings to consider the Government’s proposals, and that debate has been stifled”[6].

The parliamentary briefing paper goes on to note that some MPs have complained of the stifling of debate in parliament:

“In November 2018, there was a Westminster Hall debate on self-identification of gender, led by David Davies (Conservative). David Davies expressed concern about the consequences of self-identification:

“People who might outwardly appear to be male and possess a male body would, if they legally redefined their gender, suddenly gain access to women’s toilets, hospital wards, changing rooms, refuges and prisons. They would have the right to undertake roles that people would normally expect to be done by someone of the same sex as those the service is being offered to, such as nurses or carers conducting intimate procedures, prison or police officers carrying out searches or staff working in refuges for victims of domestic violence.””

The briefing paper goes to quote David Davies MP again on the issue of debate being stifled:

“Women’s rights activists who have met to discuss the impact of the changes have faced verbal and physical harassment. Those who have resisted… have been subject to ludicrous, vexatious legal action and dragged into court to defend themselves for speaking freely about their concerns.

I arranged a meeting in Parliament for a women’s group after a venue in London … had been cancelled. Numerous complaints were made to the House of Commons authorities before the meeting, and I was called into a meeting with the Serjeant at Arms. As the Minister knows, I have been an MP for 13 years and, like most MPs, I have organised numerous meetings for numerous groups. I have never before had to go and spend an hour with the Serjeant at Arms explaining myself. I have no problem with the conversation that we had, but it is very unusual for that to happen.

I tried to organise another meeting afterwards. Again, I was contacted by the Serjeant at Arms’ office. After the meeting took place, numerous complaints were made, mostly vexatious, but they resulted in a three-month investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Again, I have no problem with that and with the conclusion that she reached, but such investigations are very unusual. I was even told by another Member of Parliament that I could face police action because of what had taken place, because of the potential that a public order offence had been committed. This matter is one for debate, such as the one we are having now. We have a right to discuss these issues. If people know that meetings will result in investigations and legal action against them, even if it amounts to nothing, they will obviously be far less inclined to hold them.”

In the context of the obstacles to getting gender critical research articles published in academic journals and in accessing grant funding, Professor Kathleen Stock, University of Sussex, explains by way of example:

“Reports I have received from others include: i) that a paper on female sexual dysfunction was rejected from an academic journal well-known in her field, by both reviewers, on the grounds that the paper “assumed that only women can suffer from vaginismus”; ii) that a Professor prominent in the field of Human Rights received a rejection for their book proposal on humanism – of which one aspect of a single chapter was on “new ideas about transgender people” – on the grounds that this book proposal was “materially dangerous” to trans people and denied the “validity of trans women’s identities and existence”; iii) that a Philosophy Professor, on submitting a paper to a leading UK journal, part of which took up the issue of whether trans women are women, received a report as follows: “Without even mentioning the topic of the paper, let alone any of my arguments, the report basically said that the paper was terrible and should not be accepted. I have never seen a more unprofessional referee’s report in my life. The fact that a fellow professional philosopher would engage in such blatant sabotage was very disturbing.”

A recent High Court case, Miller v College of Policing and Humberside Constabulary, provides another example of how freedom of expression is being restricted in the UK[7]. The claimant, Mr Miller, a former policeman, was visited at home by the police and accused of a “hate incident” because of a satirical rhyme he had posted on Twitter relating to trans people. The claimant’s legal team argue that the College of Policing’s guidance on “hate incidents” and the Humberside Constabulary’s heavy-handed approach to policing comments on Twitter are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. There have been other media reports of citizens being visited at home by the police as a result of comments made on Twitter[8].

Article 21

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Woman’s Place UK has direct experience of the right to peaceful assembly being undermined and failure of the police to defend the right of women to free assembly. Article 21 is clear that no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Woman’s Place has been organising meetings around the country since November 2017. The meetings are open to both men and women and respectful dialogue and debate are encouraged. Speakers have included academics, writers, lawyers, journalists, sportswomen, and trade unionists. The attempts to suppress these meetings are documented in a blog[9], including physical attacks, masked protesters making noise outside the venue to intimidate participants and drown out discussion, pressure on venues to cancel, and even a bomb threat. As a party state that has ratified ICCPR, the UK government has a duty to uphold Article 21 rights, including the right to meet, and the right to protest outside a meeting, but not in such a way that involves physical violence, intimidation or that prevents the meeting from taking place. By way of example of how the state has failed to act to ensure Article 21 rights are upheld, at a meeting in Brighton on 23 September, one of many held as fringe meetings around the Labour Party Conference, the police were observed standing by as a baying mob surrounded the building where the meeting was being held, shouting, beating and kicking the windows. Woman’s Place has submitted a formal complaint to Sussex Police constabulary as they refused to act to protect meeting participants entering and leaving the building.

The attempts to prevent women from meeting to discuss their rights extends beyond intimidation and includes physical assaults. Maria MacLachan, a woman in her 60s, was physically assaulted by a trans activist at a feminist meeting at Hyde Park corner in 2017[10]. In June 2019, feminist journalist and author, Julie Bindel, was assaulted as she left a meeting at Edinburgh University to discuss women’s rights[11]. Both Ms MacLachan and Ms Bindel have taken legal action against their assailants.

Universities have been at the centre of several recent attacks on freedom of assembly. Professor Stock has noted that one of the reasons is “a reluctance of University managers to be seen to endorse any such event or activity, since they fear both reprisal from students, and negative publicity from a public to whom the central issues at stake have yet to be clearly explained (see below). Indeed, in April 2019, a conference on prison abolitionism was cancelled by the Open University after receiving complaints that a co-organiser of the conference, Richard Garside (the Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice) had argued, in print, against the inclusion of male trans women in female prisons.” There are many examples of permission for meetings being withdrawn at the last minute due to threats of violence or because transpeople complain that the prospect of even academic discussion of a possible conflict between women’s rights and trans rights makes them feel unsafe.

Conclusion

We note that the Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee’s VII Periodic Report in 2015 did not touch upon the Articles referred to in the above list of issues. We welcome the Committee’s recommendations in relation to Violence Against Women and Girls and access to abortion in Northern Ireland and urge the Committee to also consider the issues set out above when preparing the list of issues for the VIII Periodic examination.

[1] ‘Gender critical’ denotes the feminist perspective that biological sex is immutable, that humans do not have an innate sense of “gender identity”, rather that humans are conditioned by society to conform to gendered stereotypes. This view is not exclusive to feminists. Gender critical feminists believe that ‘gender’ is a social construct that usually manifests as an oppressive, externally imposed hierarchy, with women being accorded fewer rights than men on the basis of their sex; this is harmful to both women and men. The objective should be to liberate ourselves from gender stereotypes rather than reinforce them.

[2] Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. A derogatory term used to describe gender critical feminists. On social media the term is often accompanied by threats of violence or violent imagery. https://terfisaslur.com/

[3] The legislation governing data protection in the UK. An unfounded complaint was made accusing Professor Stock of breaching the data protection regulations.

[4] https://www.scribd.com/document/440301628/Forstater-v-CGD-Judgement-2019

[5] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/maya-forstater-ive-been-abused-for-my-beliefs-about-trans-people-90pzqs7tw

[6] https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-8746 8th January 2020

[7] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/11/20/right-offended-does-not-exist-judge-says-court-hears-police/

[8] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/03/20/second-woman-investigated-police-transphobic-comments/

[9] https://womansplaceuk.org/a-record-of-womans-place-uk-meetings/?fbclid=IwAR3kAdQrGcE9nf-KE4EzvVivaCrWKyJgbqsXGKFUkEP8F2Pvb92gaGluScg

[10] https://www.peaktrans.org/when-vicious-entitled-thugs-attack-i-fight-back/

[11] https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/police-investigate-after-feminist-almost-punched-after-women-s-talk-in-edinburgh-1-4948212

 

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