UK in diplomatic standoff over deletion of abortion rights from gender statement

Exclusive: Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands refuse to sign edited version, drawing up new phrasing including women and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights

The UK government is in a diplomatic standoff with three European countries over a statement on gender equality that it changed to remove commitments to women’s reproductive and sexual health rights.

Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands are refusing to sign the edited version unless their concerns “are taken into consideration”, a spokesperson for the Dutch foreign ministry told the Guardian on Thursday.

The countries have drawn up alternative phrasing and circulated their suggestions among all governments who participated in the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) that took place in London at the start of July.

“Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands will not sign the current amended version unless our concerns on the inclusion of [sexual and reproductive health and rights] are taken into consideration, and have yesterday delivered counterproposals to that effect,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), under whose auspices the conference was held, initially said the edits were made to clear up “a perceived ambiguity”, but has since said it made the changes in order to focus on “core issues and ensure consensus between signatories”.

However, the second version of the statement, which was put online days after the conference had wrapped up, has just eight signatories, including the UK, whereas the original version had 22. The original version 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”.

The changes, as well as the opaque way they were made, have also drawn fire from human rights organisations and senior politicians.

Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the women and equalities select committee, has written to foreign secretary and Tory leadership contender Liz Truss asking her to explain “this sudden backtracking on women’s rights”.

Labour’s shadow international development secretary, Preet Kaur Gill, described the amended statement as “yet another attack on humanitarian rights from a government whose global reputation has already been tarnished”.

Ed Brown, secretary-general of the Stefanus Alliance International (Saint), a religious freedom and human rights organisation based in Oslo, worked on the drafting of the original statement with colleagues from Denmark.

He said he would have understood if the concerns had been raised earlier, allowing all parties to come to a mutually satisfactory compromise. But the way in which the changes had been made by the UK after the conference was a big problem, he added.

“For me the procedural issue – where the statement is removed after 22 countries have signed it – that for me is a big, big issue and for me undermines the trust that’s been built between nation states on this … That’s my major gripe.”

It remains unclear who ordered the changes. The UK hosted the conference in its capacity as this year’s chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. Fiona Bruce, the Tory MP and prime minister’s special envoy on FoRB, was heavily involved in organising the two-day event.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “The UK is committed to defending universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health rights and will continue working with other countries to protect gender equality in international agreements.”

Bruce has been approached for comment.
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