Attacking women’s rights and UN human rights mechanisms under the guise of principle

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Grégor Puppinck’s response to critiques of the ECLJ’s report on financing for the UN human rights Special Procedures’ system is a masterclass in evasion. He entirely ignores Martin Scheinin’s analysis that shows the dishonesty and manipulation involved in the preparation of his report. His claim that my work as UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights was “paid by the OSF” is utterly unsubstantiated and based on an ignorance of the facts. And his refusal to engage with the damning allegations relating to the genuinely scandalous source of his own funding compounds the bad faith.

Dr Puppinck’s approach reflects a common human predeliction: he is pre-occupied and outraged by the actions of others that most closely reflect a practice of his own. Thus, having engaged in large-scale ad hominem attacks on individual Special Rapporteurs who are essentially depicted as puppets of OSF, or Ford, and on ECHR judges whom he refers to as Soros judges, and refusing to answer any of the questions relating to the extremely problematic nature of the funding of his own organization, he deplores ad hominem attacks made by others and decries a lack of transparency in the funding received by others. I shall return below to why the source of funding and the funders’ objectives matter.

First, let me respond to some of Dr Puppinck’s specific comments. The claim that providing a list of the names of 24 experts to whom he spoke disposes of the problem that all quotes are anonymous is entirely unconvincing. It is legitimate to quote a single person anonymously, but to repeatedly make statements such as “almost all the experts interviewed” or “almost all experts acknowledge” enables an author to fabricate with ease. To then add, with an apparently straight face, that “this report does not purport to reflect the opinion of all the experts interviewed” is simply disingenuous. An author can’t have it both ways. Anonymous quotes can be used to illustrate an opinion or an argument, but not to transform the author’s own opinion into one that reflects what ‘most’ of the rapporteurs believe.

It is one thing to dismiss the importance of following standard methodology, but it is quite another to also dismiss the need for any conceptual clarity. Since his own definition of ‘capture’ fits with none of those used in the literature on the subject, Puppinck simply swats the issue aside by arguing that whether “the concept of capture applies or not to the facts doesn’t change the reality of the facts”. Never mind the fact that the entire report hinges on the sensationalist claim that the rapporteurs have been ‘captured’ by the foundations and are thus effectively beholden to them! It really doesn’t matter if captured means something quite different.

Then there is the terrible ‘gotcha’ moment where my own craven greed is exposed for all the world to see.  Puppinck states that, because of grants I received, my “mandate [was] paid by the” Open Society Foundation.  The resulting insinuation is that by obtaining such research grants I was captured by foundations which then determined the agenda that I followed as Special Rapporteur. Based on publicly available information, our sleuth ‘reveals’ two grants that my university (New York University) received from OSF. The first was for $200,000 from OSF for research designed to advance the theoretical understanding and practical implementation of economic and social rights, work that I have been engaged in since the late 1970s. Those funds went to employ a full-time researcher working on an academic project that still remains unfinished even after the completion of my term as Special Rapporteur, and the interim results of which were not used in any way as part of my output as SR. For those reasons, the funding was not declared to the UN.

The second OSF grant, for $400,000, went to the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice for a different project related to one of my reports on digital welfare states and human rights. This important and impressive project is directed and run by Christiaan van Veen who instigated, prepared and submitted the funding application to OSF. For bureaucratic reasons, I was listed as the Principal Investigator, since both OSF and NYU require a full-time faculty member to be the person formally responsible for the grant.

While the OSF website notes that I was the UN Special Rapporteur at the time these grants were made, what matters is that neither grant was actually used to further any particular research that I was undertaking as part of my mandate. Of course, even if they had been used for that purpose, such support in aid of an official UN set of policies that promote respect for international human rights law would have been entirely appropriate (and I would have disclosed it). In contrast, the logic of Puppinck’s position is that Special Rapporteurs should operate in splendid isolation because UN Member States in determining the official UN budget do not and will not provide the indispensable support that an unpaid independent expert needs in order to carry out a heavy and demanding workload. Maybe Puppinck would prefer the reports of experts to be unresearched, uninformed, based on no consultation, and done on the fly.

 I should add that before, during, and after the two-year period of the grant that the university received in support of my own research I was subject to pressure of absolutely no kind from the foundation. The suggestion that OSF calls the tune to be played by any rapporteur whose work it funds is utterly without foundation (forgive the pun). Those who suggest that my work as Special Rapporteur was not carried out in a spirit of independence must not have read any of my reports.

There are two remaining elements in Puppinck’s response that warrant further consideration.

One is the overall issue of external funding of human rights activities.  I claimed that this is part of a different and much larger conversation. Puppinck insists that it is the key issue. The reality is that there is no ‘perfect’ source of funding for human rights activities. Just as private actors (Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations) provided essential donations to enable the building of the Palais des Nations in Geneva and the United Nations Headquarters in New York, philanthropists have always contributed to funding important elements of the overall human rights movement. Governments have a powerful self-interest in ensuring that human rights mechanisms that are operating effectively are under-funded.  This is the case, for example, with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the African Commission and Court, and many other such institutions. The Special Procedures system is scandalously under-funded given the crucial role that it plays within the overall system. On the other hand, governments have been remarkably generous in funding many of the newly resurgent GONGOs (Government-funded Non-governmental Organizations) that plague the United Nations system and distort the concept of civil society movements in many countries around the world.

But to invoke these complexities and dilemmas to argue that all “direct funding going directly to mandate-holders must be banned” is not only to throw the baby out with the bath water but to use a purportedly principled stand to conceal an effort to radically reduce the effectiveness of the Special Procedures system.  The reality, as Puppinck knows all too well, is that the system would be a shadow of its present self if all such external funding were to be withdrawn.

The real challenge is to identify criteria that can be used to determine what sort of contributions are acceptable. Transparency is certainly an important element, but every grant made by the foundations attacked by Puppinck have been publicly declared and are available online for all to see. In the case of the Special Procedures, the single most important criterion is that the source of the funding (the funder or foundation) is itself committed to upholding, rather than limiting or undermining, the principles reflected in international human rights law, as understood by the institutions established for the purpose of promoting and applying that law. This is the litmus test that ensures legitimacy and consistency with the United Nations Charter.

The foundations that Puppinck treats as enemies clearly support those principles, as illustrated by the fact that many of the grants were given to promote gender equality which is a key principle underpinning the international human rights system – a principle whose importance was underscored by the Chief Justice of the Mexican Supreme Court this week after his court unanimously ruled that criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional, in an important step in “the historic fight for [women’s] equality, for their dignity and for the full exercise of their rights.”

It seems appropriate that Puppick’s own position should be judged by the standard that he seeks to apply to others in relation to funding.  His insistence that whoever pays the piper calls the tune translates in a very straightforward manner in his case. He is an employee of a conservative Christian American employer which focuses overwhelmingly on one issue: what they characterize as the evil of abortion. They are dedicated to eliminating access to abortion worldwide, at all costs. This explains why funding in support of women’s rights, gender equality, violence against women, reproductive rights, or LGBTI rights, is anathema and why human rights experts or judges must be cut off from any actors whose work might support their efforts to uphold and apply international human rights law in these areas. The effort to stir up a scandal around funding by particular foundations that promote this agenda is essentially an attempt to hobble key component parts of the international human rights system and undermine their ability to promote an equality agenda that runs counter to the misogynistic vision of the American Center for Law and Justice.

The pre-occupations of the ECLJ, which is totally funded and run by its American counterpart, are perhaps best captured by this list of the “top ten petition initiatives” that the ACLJ has promoted:

  • Stop Planned Parenthood Harvesting and Selling Babies’ Organs
  • Defeat the Abortion-Pill Mandate’s Assault on Religious Liberty at the Supreme Court
  • Defeat the Deep State; Protect Our Constitution
  • Defend “In God We Trust” from Atheist Attacks
  • Defund Planned Parenthood Now
  • No Abortion Funding in Coronavirus Bill
  • Restore the Constitution. Don’t Shred It
  • Censure Antisemitism in Congress
  • Stop Barbaric New Abortion Laws
  • Demand Congress Pass the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act

Dr Puppinck’s own professional career is devoted almost exclusively to the same range of issues. He represents the Vatican (the Holy See) in some of the committees of the Council of Europe and has received various honors from the Vatican for his work. He describes agencies such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation as being part of the “abortion industry lobby” and their supporters as being part of “the ‘pro-death’ camp,” and he has attacked the role of foundations such as OSF in supporting a woman’s right to abortion. It is no surprise that the examples that he gives at the end of his post of problematic funding almost all relate to support for work on gender equality and women’s rights.

As himself a lobbyist whose raison d’être is to persuade governments, judges, independent experts, and anyone else who will listen, he bizarrely deplores the fact that UN experts seek “to influence [their] colleagues at the UN”. He is outraged, for example, that the Ford Foundation would have the temerity to fund one of the world’s most respected human rights advocates, Juan Mėndez, when he was Special Rapporteur on torture to write a report on gender and torture.

In conclusion, it is true that a constructive debate to enable and ensure sustained support and funding for the Special Procedures system, and for the broader United Nations human rights program, is urgent and long overdue. But obtaining stronger institutional support for Special Procedures or enhancing their effectiveness could not be further from the agenda being pursued by Puppinck.  An unprincipled, methodologically suspect, and conceptually flawed attack motivated by a commitment to banning abortion worldwide and reducing women’s equality is hardly the best way to achieve that goal.

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Grégor PUPPINCK says

September 16, 2021

Reply to Alston, on the Financing of UN Experts and Abortion.

Once again, you are attacking the author of the report and not the facts it contains, none of which you dispute. You stoop to putting my supposed intentions on trial, to reproach me for being Catholic, for serving the Church, for defending human life. You even go so far as to mention my decorations from the Pope... In short, you reproach me my religion.
You also attack the Report by denouncing the anonymity of many quotations, but the violence of your reaction and that of some other experts towards me proves that this anonymity is a necessary measure to protect sources of information. In any case, some of the quotes - among the most important ones - are signed; and more importantly, all the data in the report are verifiable. Of these, you do not speak.
The aim of the report is to ensure that the Special Procedures receive adequate, neutral, transparent and sufficient official funding. To do this, the current situation needs to be made explicit, so that there is a chance to overcome the omerta, and the resistance of people like you who are involved in this situation.
It is the role of an NGO to raise the alarm in this way. It is simply unacceptable that public officials, such as UN experts, are directly receiving millions of dollars outside the control of the UN, and moreover from politicised foundations and governments. This is against all anti-corruption rules. It is also unacceptable that UN experts are recruited by institutions that place them in a conflict of interest situation. A judge, or a simple national deputy, who would act in this way would be exposed to criminal prosecution.
I agree that the Special Procedures system is under-funded, but the proper answer to this problem is not such external and opaque fundings.
You claim that "The reality is that there is no 'perfect' source of funding for human rights activities.” This is not true. The normal source of funding for an intergovernmental institution is the governments that constitute it. Can you imagine ECHR judges being financed by private foundations, and moreover without any control by the Council of Europe?
You claim that it is possible "to identify criteria that can be used to determine what sort of contributions are acceptable" and that "the single most important criterion is that the source of the funding (the funder or foundation) is itself committed to upholding, rather than limiting or undermining, the principles reflected in international human rights law, as understood by the institutions established for the purpose of promoting and applying that law.” But such a criterion is subjective and tautological because those who are called upon to apply it are the very ones who define its content. Each expert is the judge of the conformity of his funder with his understanding of human rights, and therefore of their legitimacy. You seem ignoring that there are several competing conceptions and interpretations of human rights; and not all mandate holders share the same one.
Therefore, I repeat, only institutional funding can be in line with the requirements of transparency, neutrality and equity.
Let us now turn to the issue of abortion.
I believe that abortion is not, and never will be, a freedom or a true human right (for the reasons exposed here :, unless we ignore the very existence of the human foetus, and destroy the coherence of human rights.
You reproach me for targeting pro-abortion experts in particular, but it is they who provide illustrations of problematic behaviours.
More fundamentally, those who claim that abortion is a human right bear a heavy responsibility for the crisis of human rights, for they undermine their universal foundation, which is none other than the human dignity shared by all, regardless of physical condition. Instead of "inherent dignity", they substitute the “individual will” as the basis of human rights. In so doing, the basis of the universality of human rights disappears, as there is a multitude of competing and rival wills; and human rights no longer serve to protect human dignity, but to guarantee the expression of the individual will. Human rights then become an instrument of power, such as the power of the mother over the life of her child.
To claim that abortion is a human right is to divide human nature, by separating, opposing and hierarchising human life and will. This is destructive not only of human lives, but also of human nature, and therefore of human rights, for human rights are nonsense without prior human nature. Moreover, separating, opposing and hierarchising human life and will leads to atrocities, as the 20th century teaches us.
Human rights derive their content and universality from human nature, i.e. they are based on natural law, of which they are a transcription in international law. Identifying human rights with individual will is just another kind of legal positivism against which human rights have been established.
(See here :