The consequences of Trump’s ‘global gag rule’

President Trump has caught the headlines again today after his failed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or ‘Obamacare’. This was not the first controversial Trump policy to dominate the headlines. Previously, his travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim majority countries had faced numerous legal challenges. However, Trump’s reintroduction and extension of the so-called ‘Mexico City policy’, which bars international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from receiving US government funding if they perform or promote abortions, has demanded fewer column inches. This is despite the likelihood that it will have far reaching and potentially damaging consequences. Millions of women around the world rely on NGOs for family planning and abortion advice, the loss of US government funding for these NGOs will severely curtail their ability to offer these services. 

The Mexico City policy

Restrictions on foreign aid to NGO’s involved in abortion were first introduced by President Reagan in 1984, and were announced at a United Nations International Conference in Mexico City. The policy was then named for the city where it was announced. It stipulates that in order to receive US government global family planning aid, NGOs must certify that they will not “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning”.

The policy is also known as the ‘global gag rule’ since it prevents NGOs that receive US funding from discussing abortion. If these NGOs use funds from any source for this purpose (including funds from outside the US), they become ineligible for US global family planning aid.

The policy prohibits NGO’s that receive this aid from providing abortions, from providing advice or information about abortions, or from conducting public information campaigns about abortion as a method of family planning. However, the policy does allow NGOs to give information about abortions in cases where a woman has already decided to have an abortion, and in cases where a pregnancy was the result of rape or puts a woman’s life at risk.

Since its introduction, the policy has proved to be extremely partisan. It was rescinded by President Clinton in 1993, then reinstated by President Bush in 2001, before being rescinded a second time by President Obama in 2009.

However, Trump has not just reinstated the policy but has also dramatically expanded its scope and application. It had in the past only applied to US global family planning funds, which make up about $607.5 million of the aid budget. Trump has expanded the policy to cover the entire $8.8 billion US aid budget for global health assistance. The policy will now therefore apply to HIV/AIDS programmes, malaria programmes and even to water, sanitation, and hygiene programs.

The impact of this change is likely be dramatic since many organisations that provide services in the above areas also provide advice on abortion as a method of family planning. For the first time, the policy will affect not just family planning organisations but global NGOs such as Save the Children, WaterAid and the International HIV/Aids Alliance

Consequences of the policy

Many NGOs have stated that they will continue to talk about abortion, and therefore lose US government funding. Examples include Marie Stopes International (MSI) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), who have both already announced that they will not comply with the ‘global gag rule’, and will therefore lose their US government funding. MSI estimates that the resulting loss in its services will cause more than six million unintended pregnancies globally during Trump’s first term.

Many of the organisations that will lose this funding also have important roles in the provision advice on all areas of sexual health and family planning. For example, this April the Trump administration announced that it would strip US funding for the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) due to unsubstantiated reports of UNFPA involvement with coercive abortion in China. The UNFPA is the world’s largest provider of contraceptives. It provides reproductive health services to 12.5 million women in more than 46 countries, and is at the forefront of the battle against HIV/AIDS in Africa. The US was previously the third largest donor to the organisation, and the loss of this funding will necessitate a reduction in its programmes.

Other NGO’s will cut abortion counselling to continue receiving US aid. Such NGOs will no longer be able to provide a service that has proved extremely effective in helping women throughout the world. A large and growing body of evidence shows that one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty and improve education is by giving women control over their reproductive cycle through the provision of contraceptives and the availability abortion. In parts of Africa, girls who become pregnant are often required to leave school which makes them significantly more likely to be in poverty in later life.

The Mexico City policy is unlikely to succeed in its stated aim of reducing the number of abortions, instead it will force women into unsafe abortions outside of the official medical system. A Stanford University study examining the policy during the Bush years found that countries most affected by the policy had significantly increased rates of abortions whereas the rates remained relatively stable in countries less affected by the policy. Thirteen percent of maternal deaths in developing countries are caused by unsafe abortions.


Evidence suggests that the cumulative effect of the Mexico City policy will be to reduce access to contraception, safe abortions, and programmes that combat HIV/AIDS. Whilst various countries and organisations have stepped forward to help fill the funding gap left by the policy, such as Sweden and the Gates Foundation, they will be unable to match the levels of funding previously offered by the US. Furthermore, Trump’s May budget included a proposal to completely eliminate funding for all US global family planning aid. Whilst this proposal is expected to be weakened during Congressional budget negotiations, any cuts to family planning will hamstring global efforts to fight poverty and HIV.

Freddie Lloyd is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Conservatism and human rights - Special edition

In this week's episode Laura Round explores our recent publication 'Britain breaking barriers' with our commissioners the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP and the Rt Hon Maria Miller MP. The report includes policies to strengthen human rights and tackle all forms of discrimination. Bright Blue director Ryan Shorthouse and senior researcher James Dobson also join the show to discuss some of these policies in more depth

A legacy of broken promises on the legacy of “the troubles”

Northern Ireland is in the news just now because of the continuing negotiations between the minority Conservative government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). From a human rights point of view that is problematic in a number of ways, ranging from the extreme social conservatism of the DUP to potential damage to the peace process through having the representatives of one side of the community here in alliance with the UK Government, a.k.a. “honest broker.” However, there is one area where the obstacle to a human rights based solution is the UK Government itself, albeit supported by the DUP.

This area is called “dealing with the past,” or, more commonly nowadays, “legacy” matters. Whatever you call it, this is a question of dealing with the fall-out from “the troubles,” which is the euphemism for a violent political conflict that, proportionate to Northern Ireland’s population, killed almost twice as many as the number of civilians who died in the UK during World War 2. Twenty years after the peace agreement, there is still no comprehensive way of dealing with the needs for justice and compensation for those bereaved or maimed as a result of the conflict.

Human rights activists see this as, firstly, a continuing breach of the UK Government’s obligation under the European Convention of Human Rights to properly investigate killings and torture and, secondly, as a violation of the victims’ right to truth. This is not, therefore, a matter of living in the past or rewriting history – it is question of applying the rule of law. Specifically, in the case of killings carried out by state agents, it is the pursuit of a major aim of human rights activists across the world – combating impunity.

There are up to 2,000 cases involving death during the conflict that have not been satisfactorily resolved. In the late nineties, CAJ and others took a sample of cases to the European Court of Human Rights. In the 2001 judgements on the McKerr group of cases the court found that the UK state had an obligation to carry out effective and independent investigations under Article 2 (Right to Life) of the European Convention. These cases are still unresolved, still under scrutiny by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and still the UK Government is making excuses for inaction. There has been a “package of measures” in place, including the police Historical Enquiry Team which was disbanded after Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found it was biased in favour of British soldiers.

There were two attempts at devising a comprehensive mechanism for dealing with the past; the last Labour Government refused to implement the first, the Coalition government refused to implement the second. Finally, the parties and the two governments made the Stormont House Agreement at the end of 2014. In rather general terms, this Agreement suggested four interlocking institutions to investigate deaths, develop an oral history archive, provide a secure mechanism for truth recovery and provide a thematic history of the conflict. 

Over the last two and a half years, negotiations have continued on how to implement the Agreement. CAJ and a number of academics even produced a Model Bill that could implement it in a human rights compliant way. When the UK Government demanded an extraordinarily wide “national security” veto on what information could be given to families, we proposed formulations that would recognise the need to keep people safe and protect legitimate and contemporary security methods. It appears that these have been rejected and we expect a draft Bill to go out for consultation over the summer which will contain unacceptable power for Ministers to determine what information will enter the public domain.

Meanwhile, Government Ministers, prominent Tories and some of the press have conducted an extraordinary campaign of vilification against the current mechanisms, including police investigations and inquests, claiming imbalance against state actors and against both private lawyers and law officers. This campaign, reminiscent of a climate created before the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989, in an act of collusion between security forces and loyalist gunmen, is documented in a Human Rights First report.

A recent report of the Defence Select Committee, hurriedly completed before the dissolution of Parliament, has gone so far as to call for a “statute of limitations” – effectively an amnesty – for all British soldiers. As well as being illegal under international law, such a provision would show contempt for the rule of law and put the UK in the unsavoury company of dictatorships round the world which have indulged in “self-amnesties” to cover up their crimes.

So, we await a consultation process on a draft Bill to implement the Stormont House Agreement over the summer, although reference to the subject in the Queen’s Speec was vague and watered down from previous commitments. Meanwhile the United Nations Human Rights Committee is pursuing the issue of “accountability for conflict-related violations in Northern Ireland” in its urgent “follow-up procedure” to the 7th Periodic Report on the UK under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In response to its request, CAJ has just written a submission detailing events since 2015 which will shortly be available.

The legacy of the troubles haunts the people of Northern Ireland. If this government is not to see its legacy sullied round the world in human rights terms, it needs to issue sensible draft legislation as a matter of urgency and move quickly to enact implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.

Brian Gormally is Director of the Northern Ireland based Committee on the Administration of Justice


Caracas in Crisis: Human rights violations in Venezuela

On June 27th, Oscar Pérez, a former captain in the Venezuelan intelligence services, hijacked a police helicopter and assaulted the country’s Supreme Court and Interior Ministry with grenades and gunfire. No-one was killed or injured, however the incident marked another dramatic chapter in the anti-government protests in Venezuela which began this March following the decision by President Maduro’s Supreme Court to dissolve the National Assembly and transfer legislative power to the Supreme Court. 

Almost 100 people have already died during these protests, and numerous human rights violations have been documented, however there is currently little prospect of an end to the civil unrest. In fact, the Pérez attack suggest that the situation will deteriorate further as Maduro’s enemies in the military attempt to forcibly prevent his consolidation of power.

Growing Discontent

Civil unrest has been widespread in Venezuela since 2014 in response to a combination of violent crime, economic problems, and growing government authoritarianism.

The initial protests in 2014 began in response to the attempted rape of an student in the border city of San Cristóbal. The heavy-handed response of the police to these small initial protests caused them to quickly spread around the country, eventually claiming 43 lives, including both police officers and protestors.

The protests were also reported to be motivated by anger at the lawlessness in much of the country. In 2015, the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (OVV) calculated that the murder rate had soared to 90 murders per 100,000 residents, a higher rate than even Colombia. As the protests grew, they began to serve as a vehicle for Venezuelans to express other grievances, most importantly with regards to the collapsing economy.

The economy of Venezuela is almost solely reliant on oil production, with 95% of Venezuela’s export earnings coming from oil. In 2014, the price of oil halved, immediately sending Venezuela into a deep recession. In 2016, GDP contracted by 10%, and inflation exploded to 720%, leading to shortages in food and medicine. The government has been unable to continue it’s high level of spending on welfare and public services, the result of this has been that 82% of Venezuelans now live in poverty. This economic disaster has been perhaps the primary cause of the protests, and in 2015 Maduro’s socialist party lost their majority in the National Assembly, Venezuela’s parliament.

It was in response to the increasing tenuousness of his grip on power that Maduro introduced the constitutional changes that precipitated the 2017 protests. Since the 2015 elections, opposition leaders have been arrested or banned from political activity, and power has been channelled from the opposition majority National Assembly into the Supreme Court, which is sympathetic to Maduro. Consequently, almost every piece of legislation passed by the National Assembly since the election has been blocked by the Supreme Court.

On the 29th March, the Supreme Court officially removed the legislative powers of the National Assembly. They reversed this decision on the 1st April in the face of international condemnation and popular protest, however Maduro is now pressing ahead with plans to introduce a new constituent assembly that will introduce constitutional changes. Opposition parties have condemned this move as an indirect way of removing political opposition prior to the 2018 presidential election, an election the Maduro would likely lose.

Huge anti-government protests began almost immediately after the Supreme Court decision, culminating in the “Mother of all Marches” on April 19th, which involved several hundred thousand protestors. Almost every day since has featured protests somewhere in the country, with many featuring violence by protestors and police.

Human rights abuses against protestors

Venezuela withdrew from the Inter-American Court of Human Right in 2013, leaving citizens without recourse to international human rights law during a period in which human rights violations have increased dramatically. Over 11,000 reports of human rights violations were presented to the Public Prosecutor’s office in 2015, with only 77 trials actually being initiated during the year. No concerted effort was made after the 2014 protests by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz to prosecute security forces accused of widespread abuses; including arbitrary arrests, torture, and murder of peaceful protestors.

During 2017, the situation has worsened as the protests have intensified. It is estimated that in 2017 alone, 95 people have been killed during protests and 2000 injured. Whilst security forces have been charged for some of these incidents, many have not been investigated, and senior officers have not been held responsible for their brutal tactics. 355 protestors have been tried at military tribunals, journalists have been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned, and confessions have been obtained from protestors under torture.

The extent of government’s responsibility for these abuses is debateable. The collapse in popular support for Maduro has made him increasingly reliant on the police and military to maintain his rule. Accordingly, Human Rights Watch have suggested that Maduro offers tacit support for the abuses as he has repeatedly praised the response of the security forces to the protests, and has never condemned the rights abuses taking place. Instead he has repeatedly condemned the protests, describing them as an attempted “fascist coup” orchestrated by the United States in order to “provoke an imperialist intervention”.

Maduro’s defence of the police and military was undermined this month when Attorney General Ortega Diaz broke ranks and charged both the former national guard chief, and the current head of the intelligence services, with human rights violations against anti-government protestors. Maduro responded by describing both the accused as “brave patriots” who “have defended the peace of the republic and have all my support”. The government’s refusal to investigate human rights violations, and their collusion in the defence of suspected human rights abusers, has therefore been exposed for all to see.

A former Maduro Loyalist, Ortega Diaz has emerged as an unexpected source of official opposition to his presidency, after strongly contesting the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the opposition controlled parliament in March. However the prospects of Ortega Diaz providing effective long-term opposition to Maduro’s authoritarianism are dim as she is an isolated figure. The Supreme Court recently froze her bank accounts and banned her from leaving the country, whilst also removing various powers traditionally held by the Chief Prosecutor’s office.


The future for Venezuela looks increasingly bleak as sectarian violence increases. Maduro’s decision to change the constitution in his favour is likely to mobilise opposition to his rule, with some fearing that an escalation into civil war is possible.

Freddie Lloyd is a research assistant at Bright Blue


New report launch

Britain breaking barriers:

Strengthening human rights and tackling discrimination

17th July 2017

Britain is the home of human rights and a global force for good. After Brexit, Britain should not just be a global leader in free trade, but in human rights too. In this country, as a result of discrimination, too many people are still held back — especially in education and employment — because of who they are rather than what they do.

After a year-long inquiry led by a commission of high-profile decision makers and opinion formers, this report provides a comprehensive and compelling set of policies which can be used by the current Government for its social reform agenda to strengthen human rights and tackle all forms of discrimination.



An Italian Problem

Every summer, from June until September, Italy serves as the front line in Europe’s efforts to deal with the ongoing refugee crisis. Long from the front pages of major newspapers, this humanitarian crisis has rumbled on in the background, a steady stream of thousands fleeing across the Mediterranean, mostly from Libya, with 2,030 having died so far this year. This is a burden that Italy views as unfair, and a burden they feel is exacerbated by the actions of their European partners, which has led to divisions within the bloc over how to react to the crisis. While Europe seeks an agreement, the busiest period in the trafficking of refugees across the Mediterranean continues unabated, and with a huge humanitarian toll.  

The Current Situation

Over 500,000 people have landed in Italian ports as refugees since 2014, the largest portion of these people arriving in the summer months, putting significant annual strain on Italian asylum policy. This comes after France, Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia have all either partially implemented or wholesale adopted border closures in order to stymie the flow of refugees from Greece and Italy into their countries. The situation between Italy and its neighbours has deteriorated sharply in the last couple of years. The Mediterranean country got into a spat with Switzerland following the country’s decision to clamp down on the number of refugees crossing the Swiss-Italian border in the summer of 2016. In the last few weeks however, Italy’s relations with its neighbours have worsened sharply, after seeing a 20% rise in the number of refugees crossing the Mediterranean compared to this time last year.

In response to the on-going situation, and the lack of any concrete action taken by the EU to alleviate it, Austria announced it was preparing to send 750 soldiers to secure border crossings with Italy. The soldiers, and armoured vehicles, are stationed near the Brenner Pass, and would be ready for deployment within 72 hours should a ‘migration emergency’ trigger Vienna’s decision to block the crossing. While Austria pursued a similar strategy with Slovenia in 2015, the fact that an EU foreign minister openly condemns the lack of control over the crisis, and threatens to contravene the continent’s commitment to free movement and open borders, has caused concern. Italy summoned the Austrian ambassador, who stood by the country’s position, which many claim has been partially affected by Austrian elections in the autumn of 2016, where the Freedom Party of Austria, a right-wing populist party, came close to securing the Austrian Presidency.  


In the face of division amongst its members, the EU is set to meet several times in the coming weeks to try and reach some sort of agreement on how to diffuse the situation and avoid a situation as bad as previous summers, which led to thousands of deaths and strained services in Mediterranean countries. While a previous EU agreement committed to resettling 160,000 refugees, only 12,000 have so far been settled. Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni accused other European nations of “looking the other way”, including prominent members such as France. In response, the EU has launched legal action against the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland; all of whom have failed to meet their refugee target.

The pace of EU action has not proved sufficient in Italy though, and the country has touted some radical policies to try and deal with the crisis on its own. One such policy that was floated was a parallel of Australia’s refugee system, where they would turn away any boats from their shores that were not affiliated with their own coastguard, which many assume would lead to similar offshore detention centres to  the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Human rights groups have reacted angrily to such suggestions, claiming that aid is the obligation of the country most immediate to the crisis, which in this case would be Italy. The rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s political career from the ashes of his resignation amid scandal, on a platform that promised to put an end to this series of humiliating and debilitating crises, has injected some urgency into Italy’s politicians to address the situation.

In response to these political developments and condemnation from human rights groups, Italy announced plans to subject non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the Mediterranean to a code of conduct drawn up by the Italian Government, similar to the one used by its own coastguard. This will essentially cede control of the humanitarian situation in the region to the Italian Government. This move comes after accusations from Libya however that these NGOs create a pull factor for refugees, and are helping destabilise Libya, and drive the large number of deaths in the region. Furthermore, NGOs have been accused of violating international law and operating in Libyan territory without oversight or permission. This is another bone of contention Italy has with its European neighbours, whose NGOs are often the ones disembarking refugees on its southern shores, helping to create and refusing to help solve the problem.

The situation in Italy is at risk once again of boiling over into a broader crisis, as tensions rise between European partners, and the country’s electorate signals an appetite for decisive action. It is against this backdrop, that the EU will meet to decide future refugee policy.

Neil Reilly is a research assistant at Bright Blue

No-one should be invisible to human rights

This new Conservative government takes office at a crucial time for UK leadership on the global stage. ‘Brexit’ may dominate the domestic agenda, but we cannot renegotiate our relationship to Europe without examining our role as a global leader. We are in the midst of a global displacement crisis and consequently, a challenge to international values of human rights, the likes of which we have not experienced since World War Two. In 1951 British lawyers led the drafting of the Refugee and Geneva Conventions, a heroic response to a world in ruins. Today the challenges are different, but the need for courage and vision from world leaders is just as pressing. The UK must build and maintain these values in the face of this crisis.

Over the last five years we have grown used to the images of refugees fleeing war and persecution seeking sanctuary in Europe, but these offer a wildly distorted picture of global displacement. Contrary to common perception, most refugees – 84 percent – are hosted in developing countries, often with little infrastructure to help, and never even consider travel to richer countries. Perhaps even more strikingly, the vast majority of people who are forced from their homes through conflict or disaster have not yet crossed international borders, to be officially classed as ‘a refugee’. The tens of millions of ‘internally displaced people’ (IDPs) outnumber refugees two to one, yet their stories are rarely heard. Those who, by choice or by necessity, stay behind in their war torn and politically unstable homelands, struggling every day to survive. For them, the situation is deteriorating, as health and education systems collapse, food supply chains are disrupted and basic infrastructure is destroyed by conflict.

There are 65.6 million people forcibly displaced around the globe; 40.3 million of those, or more than six out of ten, are IDPs. In Syria, there are 6.3 million internally displaced people; in Iraq 2.3m. Most of these people have been displaced for prolonged periods of time, and as the conflicts intensify this is only expected to rise. The decades-long conflict in Colombia has left over 7.4m displaced, and the devastating famines across East Africa make this a new epicentre of mass displacement whose consequences will be felt for many years.

We cannot limit who we help based on lines on a map or the status of individuals – whether they are IDPs or refugees has little impact on their humanitarian needs that must be addressed in a principled and needs-based manner. IDPs, by the very nature of remaining in fragile and conflict affected states, are often more vulnerable than refugees, who have fled to ‘safer’ places, but they are less visible and under-resourced. While research into the complexity of internal displacement is still emerging, we already know from long experience that many refugees were first internally displaced. Is today’s IDP tomorrow’s refugee?

In September 2018, a UN summit will agree two new Compacts on refugees and migrants. This is a major opportunity to demonstrate British leadership on the world stage and highlight the plight and needs of displaced populations. There must be four priorities.

Firstly, it must be ambitious. Many agencies are rightly insisting on no backsliding on existing protections, but that is not enough for 21st century challenges. The Refugee Convention ignores two thirds of those forced to flee; fails to recognise issues from persecution based on sexual orientation to environmental displacement; and leaves many behind. UNHCR’s mandate only covers cross-border refugees; there is no agency responsible for IDPs. The Compacts must not miss these opportunities to get ahead of the curve in the century of migration.

Secondly, there must be urgent attention to the in adequacy of the international humanitarian system. People are displaced for, on average, 17 years, many are displaced multiple times, and most live outside camps in poor host communities. Disasters displace three times as many people as conflicts, and most are not legally classified as refugees. Thus, we require a new approach to the design and delivery of humanitarian aid for those forced from their homes that recognizes the needs and rights of all those on the move, not just those that cross international borders. The UN bureaucracy – and the developing and middle-income countries who host the majority of refugees and IDPs – are failing to adapt to this new norm.

Thirdly, funding. The UN reports that displacement situations are consistently underfunded and too often donors do not follow through on the pledges they make. The UK’s response to the four famines across East Africa, and at the 2016 London-based Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, are models of leadership – but with the Trump administration’s withdrawal of aid funds and the recurring reality of ‘donor fatigue’, the UK must redouble its efforts to establish predictable, multi-year funding from all donors.

Finally, the Compacts must be rights-based. Northern states including the UK favour a ‘command and control’ approach to migrants and refugees, emphasising border controls, legal categorisation and statistics. This managerial approach not only rides roughshod over the highly complex reasons people move and the choices they make, but in too many cases allows governments to continue violating the rights of citizens and refugees with impunity. Human rights and humanitarian principles must come first.

The UN has set the table for world leaders to sign agreements that can enhance the rights and dignity of all people on the move and create a structure for true cooperation. Our history shows that in moments of crisis the world can come together and choose the right, if not the easiest, path. Time and again the UK has been at the forefront of these efforts. Will we rise to the challenge?

Tom Viita is Head of Advocacy at Christian Aid

Conservatism and human rights - Episode 23

As the EU and Turkey meet to try and re-start the country's long-derailed bid for membership, further evidence of the grave crackdown on human rights and the free press is coming to light. Dr Jenny White, from the Turkey Institute, tells us more about the situation. Laura Round is joined by our Research Assistant Freddie Lloyd to discuss the alleged human rights abuses by Myanmar's armed forces against the Rohingya people.