World

U.S. investigates spam barrage on UN diplomat at women's rights conference

Vice-chair of UN conference inundated with 3,000 anti-abortion text messages in 12 languages, disrupting event

Posted: May 05, 2019

Koki Muli Grignon, vice-chair of the UN’s 62nd Commission on the Status of Women, sits in her office after filing a complaint about the 3,000 text messages sent to her by an anti-abortion group. (Mélissa Kent/CBC)

U.S. officials have opened an investigation after a female diplomat faced a barrage of anti-abortion text messages from an advocacy group, disrupting a major UN summit on women's rights. 

Koki Muli Grignon, Kenya's deputy ambassador to the UN, received about 3,000 anti-abortion text messages in 12 languages during meetings at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March. 

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She was vice-chair of the conference, but the messages forced Muli Grignon to suspend the negotiations and leave the UN building in New York City to get a new phone number.  

"It was totally impossible to work," Muli Grignon told CBC News of the incident. ''The UN should be a safe space — nobody should be intimidated.''

Campaigners say the incident is part of a broader trend, where groups opposed to abortion rights and other women's reproductive health services, are targeting the UN. 

"The atmosphere was a lot more polarized and divisive, that is for sure," Lopa Banerjee, from UN Women, said of this year's CSW conference. "We saw, definitely, hostile tactics, intimidation tactics."    

The text alerts were sent by CitizenGo, an anti-abortion organization based in Spain, which describes itself as "a community of active citizens who work together, using online petitions and action alerts as a resource, to defend and promote life, family, and liberty."

'Strategy of distraction'

The text messages to Muli Grignon demanded that any mention of ''abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity, and comprehensive sexuality education'' be removed from the final text at this year's CSW. All these terms have appeared in multiple global agreements over the last 25 years.

''They make it sound as though there's some covert plan to slip in abortion,'' Françoise Girard, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, said of conservative religious groups like CitizenGo. ''There's no secret plan. It's totally up front.''

The Kenyan envoy believes she was singled out because of a mistaken belief that, as the facilitator for the CSW, she had influence over this year's agreed conclusions. 

CitizenGo, which campaigns against abortion and on other issues related to women's health, is among the co-sponsors of a high-level event on the role of the family taking place at the UN later this month, along with more than two-dozen countries including Saudi Arabia, Russia and Pakistan. (CitizenGo/Twitter)

''I have absolutely no control over the content of the outcome document. Only member states were able to negotiate the paragraphs,'' Muli Grignon said, calling the harassment an attack on diplomacy and the UN itself. 

The document is used by governments around the world as a road map for issues involving women, including: health, education and employment rights. 

Jessica Stern, executive director of the LGBTQ rights group Outright Action International, said anti-abortion groups and conservative activists attempted to use a "strategy of distraction" — including cornering delegates — to hold up business at the women's rights conference. 

"We've really seen an increase of participation from religious right actors who come into the CSW with the intention of narrowing the definition of women, removing or re-interpreting the definition of gender equality, and attacking any LGBTIQ participation,'" said Stern. 

The CSW is an important forum for women from around the world to meet and swap strategies, she added. "It's not a coincidence that the [religious] right has seen the potency of the CSW, and the potency of multilateralism and said 'that's the place where we are going to attack women's rights.'"

British UN Ambassador Karen Pierce said it's public knowledge certain religious groups at CSW have made common cause with conservative countries sympathetic to their beliefs, but targeting the personal phone of a "neutral facilitator" in an effort to "'hijack the agenda … crosses a line."

Ignacio Arsuaga, president of CitizenGo, shows damage to the group's 'Free Speech Bus,' after it was attacked near the United Nations headquarters in New York City in 2017. CitizenGo apologized this year for sending a barrage of text messages to a UN diplomat. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The president of CitizenGo later apologized to Muli Grignon. The group wrote that it "will use this experience at CSW to learn, grow, and become more effective, so you or any person working in the UN system never have to feel this way again."

CitizenGo, which is not a UN-accredited NGO, is among the co-sponsors of a high-level event on the role of the family taking place at the UN later this month, along with more than two-dozen countries including Saudi Arabia, Russia and Pakistan. 

The Kenyan envoy said she filed a formal harassment complaint ''to prevent this from happening again ... You can't come to the UN and bully one of us."

U.S. officials are investigating the incident, rather than the UN, because the targeting was done on an American mobile phone network, CBC News has learned. 

For her part, Muli Grignon is waiting for the investigation report, and on Tuesday she is among the keynote speakers at a UN event on tackling cyber-bullying.