“As you know, we accept the claims of 21st century science, which is that life begins at conception. As Christian democrats, we also accept that we live in a pluralistic, democratic society, and that many citizens do not accept such a fact. Therefore, we need to focus on more and better education, and through it, to protect life from conception. “This comment was made by Davor Ivo Stier, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and the key man for Human Rights of the Republic of Croatia, on the decision of the Constitutional Court concerning abortion legislation (which did not overturn the 1976 Law).
If the Croatian Parliament will take into account the recommendations of the Constitutional Court when voting on the new law regulating abortion, Croatia should remain among the countries that allow abortion on demand. Regardless of such domestic regulation, in accordance with the conviction of Minister Stier that life begins at conception, Croatian diplomacy will fight the availability of abortion for all women who need it in international fora, not taking into account the deaths of women in developing countries that such decisions could cause.
Why would Croatia speak out in international fora against a practice it has at home? Has Croatia aligned itself with Poland and Hungary at the forefront of ultra-conservative currents in the Human Rights Council of the UN? We tried to find this information out from the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, but we had not received their explanation after several days of waiting.
The role of the Vatican
The family is the basic unit of society, and the right to life requires protection from the moment of conception. We are committed to religious freedom and freedom of speech. Reproductive rights and the right to non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity do not fall within the scope of human rights as defined by international conventions. They must therefore be recognized as “new rights”, whose definition falls within the domain of individual states.
Although this passage is reminiscent of the remarks that Croatia had on European Council Conclusions on EU Priorities at UN Human Rights Fora in 2017, it actually describes the guidelines of the Catholic Church from 1994, when the Vatican – leading a coalition joined by Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Malta, Iran and Libya – started a counter-attack against women’s reproductive rights, that, up until the Nineties, were considered to be non-negotiable in UN bodies and the European Union. Back then, the Vatican was the only powerful actor opposing such a concept of human rights, drawing strength from its status as a special observer to the UN.
A conservative revolution
Although the struggle for gender equality, reproductive rights and freedom of sexual orientation seemed all but won in the Nineties, during the reign of George W. Bush, a series of neoconservative American non-governmental organizations and think tanks associated with the “New Christian Right” and requiring “a return to traditional values” were established or strengthened. These are closely linked, although not necessarily institutionally, to the Evangelical or Catholic Church, as well as the Mormon Church. In the 2000s, they started lobbying the UN and begin exporting their conservative counter-revolution.
Over time, a series of lobbying organizations operating in the European Union developed as well, either as branches of American organizations (North and South America), or as “authentically” European organizations. In Europe, about 500 such movements and organizations were identified.
The recipe is always the same and very similar to the one which was written by the Vatican in the mid-90s. Although they invariably present themselves as “grassroots” organizations that have grown spontaneously from the majority population (e.g. In the Name of the Family), they are actually parts of a global network fighting against feminism, gender equality (and the use of the term “gender”), reproductive rights – including fighting against contraception, abortion and sex education – the rights of the LGBT community, civil partnerships and marriages between members of the same sex.
All of these “evils of our time” are lumped together under the umbrella term of “gender ideology”. Neoconservative associations or organizations present themselves as the voice of the nation in defence of traditional values from colonial onslaught from “the West” or from international organizations. So basically, when it comes to the European Union, Croatia should insist on the principle of subsidiarity, as for example minister Stier mentioned in his explanation of why Croatia had sent the conservative positions to the European Council in February, unlike any positions that any of the previous Croatian governments had advocated.
In a comprehensive study by Elena Zacharenko, “Study for policy makers on opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe“, it is stated that the fight against “gender ideology” is not only focused on the aforementioned objectives, but that it represents a common denominator by which various right-wing movements can act to undermine the European liberal democracies in the light of the economic crisis.
Croatia instead of Russia
When it comes to lobbying at the United Nations, said organizations operate both in New York and at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. While the United States were intermittently included and then excluded again from the work of the Human Rights Council (during the time of the Bush administration, the U.S. withdrew from the Council due to condemnation of Israel, only to return under Obama, and now the new Trump administration again threatens withdrawal because of Israel), in recent years, Russia has imposed itself as the main propagator of the return to traditional values, i.e. returning women to the kitchen, and members of the LGBT community back to the closet.
Russia was the leader of the bloc that included some Asian, African and Latin American countries, and was joined by Poland last year. Opposite them were the Western European countries, USA and Canada. At the end of last year, Russia lost its seat on the Council, and Croatia and Hungary entered it.
Croatia, Hungary and Poland have joined forces and tried to change the policy of the EU. All three countries submitted similar positions related to reproductive rights to the European Council. All three claim that there is no clear definition of what these rights include, but Croatia felt the need to emphasize that “special attention should be given to the promotion and protection of the traditional family, based on marriage, which is defined as a union of man and woman, and the natural and fundamental unit of society “.
What drew less attention in public – but clearly shows where Croatia is positioned – are the comments about the mandate of the independent expert on the rights of LGBT persons.
“The EU will continue to promote the principle of equality and non-discrimination, strongly opposing discrimination in any field or status. In this context, within the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, the EU will engage in relevant procedures, including the help of a new independent expert on the protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and will encourage countries to be open to dialogue and allow access”, say the conclusions of the European Council. Croatia did not appreciate this attitude and noted: “We believe that there is no need to elect any commissioner for special procedures, considering that all of them do their work in their respective areas of human rights protection”. Similar remarks were made by Hungary and Poland. This point is particularly interesting when one considers that in November 2016, a coalition of African countries tried to cancel the mandate of the appointed Vitit Muntarbhorn, but the attempt was blocked by the EU and the United States.
The United States are changing course under Trump, and Croatia, Hungary and Poland, unsuccessfully so far, are trying to change the position of the European Union.
Lobbyists in the European Union
In the European Union, twenty-something organized ultra-conservative lobby groups operate, including institutes, think-tanks and platforms, all cross-linked with each other and trying to influence European policies, legislation and the decisions of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. They try to influence the language and content of the resolutions of the European Parliament and the European Council with regard to reproductive rights and development assistance.
The list of influential groups and networks can be seen in Zacharenko’s study, as well as in a comprehensive study by Croatian NGO Center for Education, Counselling and Research. According to the study, the Croatian Association “In the Name of the Family” was created as a copy of the French organization “La Manif Pour Tous” (the two even have a similar logo), a movement that advocates for marriage strictly between women and men, and against artificial insemination and sexual education in schools.
What is particularly important is their views are shared or advocated by at least one hundred members of the European Parliament (one-seventh of the total number) in the far-right parties, or in substantial part in the European People’s Party, the largest and most powerful grouping in the Parliament. According to the study by Elena Zacharenko, at least one-fifth of the 221 EPP Group is associated with the so-called “pro-life” groups and advocates for their agenda, including the new European Parliament President Antonio Tajani (Forza Italia).
Tajani is a signatory of the Pledge of the Italian foundation Novae Terrae in which the right to life from conception to natural death is promoted, and which supports the European citizens’ initiative “One of us” which is collecting signatures to stop funding “the destruction of human embryos for research, development aid and public health”. Once the initiative was rejected by the European Commission, they organized as a federation of European anti-choice actors in order to gather a wide range of supporters – in fact, most lobbying organizations and “associations” in the field support the “One of Us” initiative.
Novae Terrae Pledge signatories are sworn to the protection of the traditional family, freedom of religion and the “principle of subsidiarity” as a fundamental principle of the anti-discrimination standards that respect the “autonomy and historical and religious roots of the Member States”. When it comes to education, it is the role of parents to educate children “in conformity with their moral and religious values,” and regarding health services, the right to conscientious objection of doctors is emphasized. Among the promoters of Pledge are forty organizations from all over Europe, and among them, Ladislav Ilčić on behalf of Hrast. Hrast is also connected with the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FAFCE), which works closely with the Pontifical Council for the Family, and is a member of the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM).
The founder of the Novae Terrae Foundation is the Italian EPP-member Luca Volonte, who is also the head of the think tank Dignitatis Humanae Institute, and a board member of the Spanish CitizenGO platform, which is used to collect signatures for “citizens’ initiatives”. Last Fall, Volonte appeared at the conference by the “In the Name of the Family” association with a lecture on “The dangers of gender ideology in schools.”
President of the EPP Club in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber (CSU) is linked with a powerful lobby group called European Dignity Watch. Both Tajani and Weber came to endorse Andrej Plenković in HDZ’s election campaign, and the Croatian Prime Minister likes to bring up having very good relations with them.
Marijana Petir most active in the European Parliament
Among the most active the EPP members are Slovaks Miroslav Mikolášik and Anna Zaborska, who lead EPP’s Working Group on Bioethics, organize events by ADF International and the “One of Us” Federation, as well as hold seats at the European Institute of Bioethics.
ADF International is one of the largest Christian advocacy organizations (a branch of the American Alliance Defending Freedom) which has its headquarters in Vienna, an office in Brussels and is the strongest such lobbying organization that operates in Europe. One of the leaders of the organization is Roger Kiška, who is also a board member of the “Mom, Dad and Kids” initiative, which is committed to internationally prescribing that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman. One of the members of that seven-member committee is Željka Markić. Croatia has a record of excellent cooperation with the ADF. Key advocate in European ADF Sophie Kuby (also a member of the lobbying organization European Dignity Watch) visited Croatia several times at the invitation of Stjepo Bartulica and Vice John Batarelo – in 2012 she held lectures and workshops at the summer school for young Catholics in Split, along with Marijana Petir, Božo Skoko, don Damir Stojić, Ladislav Ilčić, Krešimir Miletić and activists from the World Youth Alliance association, and in the summer of 2013, she appeared at a conference in Zadar along with Kiška. Her mother, Catholic author Gabriele Kuby, also visited Croatia in 2013, when she presented her book “The Global Sexual Revolution”.
Among Croatian EPP-members who are the closest to ADF, European Dignity Watch and FAFCE is Marijana Petir. Along with the aforementioned Slovak MEP Miroslav Mikolášik, Czech Michaela Šojdrova and Alojz Peterle, Petir has, in cooperation with ADF, organized a rally against the Planned Parenthood Federation at the European Parliament in 2015, attended by the 28-year-old American activist Lila Rose, who has led attacks on clinics where abortions are performed in America. Lila Rose came to Croatia in 2014 at the invitation by Vigilare, where she gave a lecture on campaigning for a ban on abortion.
Petir was also one of the twenty-one MEPs to sign ADF’s Declaration for the promotion of conscientious objection of doctors last year. In July, an EPP rally in Split featured Robert Clark, Director of the European part of the ADF, and the meeting was also attended by Željka Markić.
Accompanied by Marijana Petir, in February Mikolášik appeared at the prayer breakfast of the Diocese of Sisak, spending time with the bishop Vlado Košić and Prefect of the Sisak-Moslavina County Ivo Žinić.
Slovak MEP Ana Zaborska participated in the preparation of the visit of Željka Markić to the European Parliament in 2013, hosted among others by the then-Croatian MEP Ivo Davor Stier.
Changes in human rights policy
Proof that this is not just about marginal groups, but that something significant had changed in the European human rights policy, came to the fore in December 2013, when the European Parliament rejected the Estrela Report, a non-binding report which, among other things, advocated sex education in schools , reproductive rights and free access to abortion. The report passed discussion in parliamentary committees and was to be routinely accepted, but then the representatives’ e-mail was showered by a flood of e-mails, orchestrated by the CitizenGO platform. Lawmakers eventually refused the report, and voted for the alternative variant, in which it emphasized that every country should regulate these issues on its own. Croatian EPP representatives also voted for the second version of the report, and then-MEP Stier stood out with his appeal to take the conscientious objection of medical staff into account.
A few months later the same fate befell the Zuber Report, a broad report on the situation of women, which was also rejected due to issues concerning abortion. The interesting thing about this report is that the vote was very close, and, without the Croatian EPP vote, it would not have been rejected.
We and our Polish brethren
Conservatism in the European Union gathered additional momentum since last year, following changes in politics in Poland, where the conservative right came to power, along with their own interpretation of human rights. In particular, it is interesting to note that the Polish rightists have become welcome guests in Croatia, and some members of the Croatian organization Vigilare are happy to travel to Poland. Minister Davor Ivo Stier was a guest of the Tradfest conference organized in Fall of 2016 by Vigilare, along with American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke who is leading the campaign against Pope Francis, Slawomir Okjeniczak from the Polish Piotr Skarga Institute, and Aleksander Stępkowski, President of Ordo Iuris Poland, a Catholic Institute which is currently carrying out a smear campaign against theatre director Oliver Frljić in Poland. Stępkowski is also part of the “Mom, Dad and Kids” initiative with Željka Markić.
Ordo Iuris is a legal institute based in Warsaw, and it was from there that it launched an initiative for a complete ban on abortion in Poland in 2016. The objective of the Institute is to promote traditional values and “natural order” through the provision of legal advice and seminars, using their “expertise” to seek to influence European policy. An interesting similarity exists between the coat of arms of the organization and the coat of arms of Vigilare, linking them visually to the ultra-conservative movement TFP, originating in Latin America and committed to tradition, family and property, i.e. the conservative counter-revolution.
Within the European Parliament, values of TFP are promoted by the Pro Europa Christiana Federation, led by Paul Herzog von Oldenburg, who is associated with the German ultra-rightist AfD politician Beatrix van Stroch. Looking at AfD’s election manifesto, it is evident how small the step from “protecting traditional values” to protecting the values of the Nazis can be – the party stands for the denial of financial assistance to single mothers, but also to mentally ill, who are “to be put under lock and key”, while handicapped children should be put away, in order not to bother the progress of healthy children.