By FOIA Research
on May 11, 2022 - Last updated: May 16, 2022

Benjamin Harnwell

Benjamin Winston Robert Harnwell (born 8 August 1975, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, UK)1 is an ultra-Catholic anti-abortion lobbyist and political operative formerly involved in the British Conservative Party.

In the 15 years that Harnwell was an active Conservative Party member, he worked as a close assistant to the British-Sri Lankan Conservative politician and business magnate Nirj Deva at the European Parliament. From 1999 to 2003, Harnwell was first a political secretary of Deva, and from 2007 onward he served as Deva's chief of staff.1 In between those stints at the EU Parliament, in 2002 and 2004, Harnwell served as special advisor to then Sri Lankan Prime Minister and Deva-affiliate Ranil Wickremesinghe.2

In his period at the European Parliament Harnwell connected with ultra-Catholic and anti-abortionist circles in Brussels, which in 2008 led to the creation of an anti-choice lobby group, the European Parliament’s Working Group on Human Dignity. In parallel to the Working Group, Harnwell co-founded the Catholic fundamentalist think tank Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) with the support of Deva,2 which connects militant anti-abortionists with like-minded figures from the Vatican's right wing. In 2010, he moved to Rome to lead the organization, which became more widely known when in early 2018 Steve Bannon announced his by now failed plans to open a far-right cadre school under the umbrella of the DHI in the Abbey of Trisulti, a remote Italian monastery, with Harnwell as director and Deva as primary backer.3

The DHI websites features a site-wide banner with a quote by Steve Bannon: “[Harnwell’s] the smartest guy in Rome… [he’s] always a tough guy - he comes across as a monk, but he’s actually a very tough guy.”

Harnwell identifies himself as an Austro-libertarian, and in 2009 co-founded the European Parliament’s Mises Circle, alongside Vincent de Roeck and Nirj Deva, set out to spread the influence of the Austrian School of Economics.4 Around that time, Harnwell also co-founded the Right Approach Group together with the Austrian economics advocate Patrick Barron.2

From October 2021 to date Harnwell serves as "international editor" and occasional co-host of Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room: Pandemic.2 As of 2022, he is also listed as a "Research Fellow for judeo-christian western civilisation" at The Bow Group,5 describing itself as the "World’s oldest conservative think tank."6

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Timeline

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1999 - Nirj Deva

Harnwell's activities are intimately entwined with those of Nirj Deva (born 1948), who served as a Member of the European Parliament for South East England from 1999 to 2019. Before that, he was a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons from 1992 to 1997, for the seat of Brentford and Isleworth. From 1999 to 2003, Harnwell was first a political secretary of Deva at the European Parliament, and from 2007 served as his chief of staff.1 According to Harnwell, he was an "active member of the British Conservative Party for over 15 years."2

Deva was born in Sri Lanka to a leading family of Rajasthani (Indian) descent, some of whose members held high-ranking posts in the Sri Lankan government. His grandfather was a Senator in the first Sri Lankan (Ceylon) Parliament. His mother Zita was the daughter of Dr. M. G. Perera, a member of the Senate in then Ceylon.7 He spent his primary and secondary education at St. Joseph's College, a Catholic school in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He holds Sri Lankan and British citizenship, and is a Roman Catholic.

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2002 - 2004 Sri Lanka

In 2002 and 2004, Harnwell was seconded to Colombo, Sri Lanka, as special advisor to then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.2 The job was most likely a result of Harnwell's connection to Deva, who can be seen together with Wickremesinghe on a picture Deva posted on his website. And it may be presumed that Harnwell took on some sort of liaison function between Deva and Wickremesinghe.

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2004 - Catholic baptism

In 2004, Harnwell was baptized into the Catholic Church by Fr. Michael Seed (born 1957).2 Seed is a Latin Rite Franciscan priest, and was formerly the advisor to two archbishops of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume and Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. Seed is known for several celebrity conversions to Catholicism. Seed seems to play also a role in Nirj Deva's life, who posted a picture on his website showing the two together in 2009.

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2007

According to an online CV of unknown provenance, in 2007 Harnwell rejoined Nirj Deva at the European Parliament as chief of staff. That CV also specifies that in 2007 Harnwell became the coordinator of the exploratory committee of the European Parliament Intergroup on Human Dignity as well as secretary general of the EU-Bangladesh Friendship Group in the European Parliament.1 The "Intergroup" must have been a precursor of, or a different name for, the European Parliament’s Working Group on Human Dignity, founded the following year (see below).

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2008

Universal Declaration of Human Dignity

According to Harnwell's official CV, between December 2006 and December 2008, he participated in the drafting of the "Universal Declaration of Human Dignity," an arch-reactionary pamphlet published on December 8, 2008, and signed by Harnwell.8 The declaration is cited as the foundational document of the European Parliament’s Working Group on Human Dignity as well as the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), both simultaneously founded on December 8, 2008.2

The declaration, whose name is a purposeful stab at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, makes a convoluted theological and pseudo-legal argument around the concept of "human dignity," which, according to its authors, should supplement, if not supercede, the secular fundamental human rights. The declaration starts out with the statement that "Man is ... made in the image and likeness of God," and the human dignity thus bestowed upon him demands protection of "every single human life from conception until natural death" - a thinly veiled attack on reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. The date, December 8, marks an important date in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, celebrating the immaculate conception of Virgin Mary - as Cardinal Renato Martino noted during a Papal audience granted to the DHI in 2013.9

European Parliament’s Working Group on Human Dignity

According to Harnwell's CV, it was him, alongside the former Irish MEP Gay Mitchell, who had founded the European Parliament’s Working Group on Human Dignity, where Harnwell still holds the position of honorary secretary. The Working Group was publicly launched on March 25, 2009, by European Parliament Speaker Dr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, a former patron of the DHI.

Dignitatis Humanae Institute

The Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) was established by Harnwell with the help of Nirj Deva, with Harnwell serving as director. According to Harnwell, "The DHI has since been engaged in launching parallel parliamentary working groups on human dignity in various legislatures around the world, all based on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Dignity."2

In the course of its existence, the DHI has gathered an illustrious group of Catholic fundamentalist campaigners, many of them in the orbit of the Vatican's right wing. The DHI’s advisory board includes several cardinals who are openly challenging Pope Francis stance on marriage and sexuality.10 The DHI links into a vast network of national and international anti-choice organizations and lobby groups. They are advocating various objectives of the Christian Right, such as making abortions and contraception illegal, bringing down the “gender ideology,” ostracizing homosexuality, and opposing divorce.

According to the DHI's website, "Harnwell came up with the idea for the Institute in 2004 after the mainstream Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was forced to withdraw his candidacy as Italy’s nominee for Vice President of the European Commission because of his Catholic views on homosexuality."11

Buttiglione made headlines when in 2004 José Manuel Barroso included him on his list of nominees for the European Commission as Commissioners for Justice and Equality. During Buttiglione's hearing before the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice And Home Affairs, he was asked about his stance on homosexuality and women. Buttiglione responded that he considered homosexuality a sin, and also expressed his belief that the family "exists in order to allow women to have children and to have the protection of a male who takes care of them."12 The PES, ALDE and Green/EFA groups strongly opposed Buttiglione's nomination, and threatened to reject the entire Commission. Buttiglione received plenty of support from the Catholic fundamentalist Communion and Liberation movement in the course of the controversy,13 long speculated to be a CIA front,14 to which he has been devoted since the beginning of his career.15 Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ultimately announced that the Italian government would withdraw Buttiglione's nomination, however, kept him as Minister for European affairs in the Italian government. Buttiglione was previously listed as a founding patron of the DHI, but in the meantime he has vanished from the DHI's organizational chart.

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2009 - Mises Circle in the European Parliament

Harnwell identifies himself as an Austro-libertarian, and has co-founded in 2009, alongside with Vincent de Roeck and Nirj Deva, the European Parliament’s Mises Circle, set out to spread the influence of the Austrian School of Economics in the orbit of the European Parliament.4 The invitation to the first event by the Mises Circle on March 17, 2009, written by Nirj Deva, reads as follows:16

I have set up, in cooperation with the Ludwig von Mises Institute Europe and the Mises Youth Club, a small, informal regular group for Members and Assistants to discuss economics from an Austrian School perspective. We will be working through a major economics book, and the first one we have chosen is Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom, which will be introduced for us by Turkish liberal activist Volkan Ertit. ... Afterwards, we have an opportunity to join the Taxpayers' Alliance, for their Champagne Reception to mark the launch of the new book "The Great European Rip-Off".

Vincent de Roeck has the following to say about the Mises Circle:

The "Mises Youth Club" is an international political debate club in Brussels that has been in existence for more than three years now. Since September 2008, I have held the presidency. One of my recent achievements with them is the successful establishment of a monthly book club in the European Parliament. With the support of British Conservative MEP Nirj Deva and his Libertarian Chief Benjamin Harnwell, the Mises Youth Club has been organizing the Mises Circle in the EU Parliament . ... The Circle is dominated by former LVSV members, Britons and representatives of the right-wing groups, but other nationalities and affiliations often find their way to these book clubs. ...

Harnwell also co-founded the Right Approach Group together with the Austrian economics specialist Patrick Barron. 2There are hardly any details about the group, besides that it "offers free market solutions to contemporary problems,"17 but traces of it go back to around 2010.18 In July 2009, the two had delivered a presentation on Austrian economics to Members of the European Parliament, covering "Sound Money and Sound Banking."19 Barron appears on an earlier version of the DHI's organizational chart as head of the "Sub-Committee: Human Dignity in the Economic Sphere."

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2010 - Rome

Harnwell was the Chief of Staff to Nirj Deva until the end of 2010, when he resettled to Rome to direct the DHI.2 That year, Cardinal Renato Martino joined the DHI as honorary president, an office he held from July 2010 to January 2019.20 Until 2009, Martino was head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and since 2010 he is the Grand Prior of the Order of Constantine. A staunch anti-choice activist, he has advocated that “Catholics should not vote for politicians who support abortion."21 Intimate connections between Nirj Deva, Harnwell and Cardinal Martino are illustrated by pictures from Nirj Deva's website. One picture shows Deva receiving the Knight of Merit with Star Decoration in 2010, accompanied by Cardinal Martino and Benjamin Harnwell.

Another picture on Nirj Deva's website shows Martino sticking his head together with Harnwell in 2010.

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2013

Luca Volontè

In February 2013, Cardinal Renato Martino confirmed the appointment of Luca Volontè as chairman of the DHI, a position he held until 2019 when allegations of his corrupt conduct became too loud to be overheard.22 After in December 2016 a dossier by the European Stability Initiative was published,23 a large-scale investigation into a multi-billion money laundering scheme hit off, in which Volontè was implicated.24 Investigators said “they have uncovered 2.39 million Euro in payments to Volonté through British and offshore companies. […] The payments, prosecutors allege, were made in exchange for Volonté’s efforts to mute the European body’s criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record.”25 In 2021, Volontè received a four-year prison sentence for taking bribes from Azerbaijani politicians.26

Although the DHI was not directly implicated in the scheme, it should be noted that for many years Harnwell and the corrupt Volontè had worked alongside each other, as documented by numerous pictures that show the two together. As of 2022, there is still a banner on the DHI's website advertising Volontè's Nova Terrae Foundation, a vehicle that Volontè used to received bribes from Azerbaijan.27

With Volontè as chairman of the DHI, the organization started to connect with CitizenGo, an internationally operating Christian fundamentalist network running a petition platform, whose board of trustees Volontè had joined in 2013. That synergies between the DHI and CitizenGo existed right from the start is not only indicated by Volontè's early position on CitizenGo's board of trustees. As early as 2014, CitizenGo delivered a gift to Cardinal Raymond Burke, the DHI's former advisory board president and at the time prefect of the Vatican's highest court, the Apostolic Signatura: a book containing 9000 letters of thanks to Pope Francis "for his support of the cause of life and the March for Life in Washington."28

In early 2014, Benjamin Harnwell, co-founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, delivered a book to Cardinal Raymond Burke "containing the 9000 letters of thanks to the Holy Father for his support of the cause of life and the March for Life in Washington," published by CitizenGo.

Cardinal Raymond Burke

From 2013 until June 2019, Cardinal Raymond Burke, frequently seen as a de facto leader of the Vatican's right wing, was the president of the DHI’s Advisory Council.20 Burke was prefect of the Apostolic Signatura from June 2008 until November 2014, when pope Francis removed Burke as head, and named him patron to a “largely ceremonial post” at the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), which he held until 2017.2910 Burke is known as a sharp critic of Pope Francis, accusing him for being too lenient towards homosexuality and abortion.30 The Washington Post calls Burke the “rebel prince” of the catholic church, who is “undermining Francis’s reformist, compassionate papacy, and gospel teaching […] using his position […] to legitimise extremist forces that want to bring down Western liberal democracy, Stephen K. Bannon-style.”10 Burke's involvement in the DHI certainly bolstered the influence of the DHI and its affiliates in right-wing Vatican circles.

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2014

Steve Bannon

In 2014, Harnwell met Steve Bannon for the first time, and the two hit it off. The Washington Post reported that it was Austin Ruse, a leading figure within the U.S. Catholic Right and co-founder of the arch-reactionary Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM), who initially had introduced Bannon and Harnwell.31

Ruse had recommended Bannon, at the helm of Breitbart News since 2012, to report on the canonization event of Pope John Paul II and John XXIII. Following that, Bannon decided to open a Breitbart bureau in Rome, led by the former Legionaries of Christ priest, Thomas D. Williams.32

A picture from April 2014 shows Bannon with Harnwell at the Pontifica Universita in Rome, during the events leading up to the canonization of Pope John Paul II and John XXIII,33 which Breitbart broadcasted. During the events Bannon held also a meeting with the arch-Catholic Cardinal Raymond Burke, which Harnwell, a confidant of Burke, had organized.34 The meeting must have been fruitful, since Bannon came to join the DHI as a patron, a fact that the organization to date takes much pride in. However, it was because of a fallout with Bannon that Burke withdrew from his DHI post in June 2019, following “a report that stated Bannon endorses allowing priests to marry and that he believes a majority of clergy members in the Vatican are gay,” according to BuzzFeed News.35

In July 2014, Bannon held a speech via Skype in the context of a conference that the DHI had organized in Vatican premises.

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2016 - Advisor to Mons. Sánchez Sorondo

In 2016, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo appointed Harnwell as an external counselor.2 Sorondo is an Argentine Catholic prelate who was Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences from 1998 to 2022. Sorondo has participated in several events of the DHI, and in 2015 invited DHI delegates to an "exclusive, invitation-only Vatican seminar on Human trafficking" which included the Queen of Sweden. According to the DHI website:36

Hosted by the ever-impressive Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in conjunction with the Swedish government, the “Seminar on Trafficking – with a Special Focus on Children” featured H.M. The Queen of Sweden, and DHI Board Member H.E. Cardinal Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace.

After thanking her for the work she was doing to highlight the terrible reality of the trafficking of children Benjamin Harnwell, DHI Founder, asked Queen Silvia – citing Mother Teresa – whether she also thought there was a connection between abortion and the hardness of hearts shown towards children after they are born.

As of 2016, Harnwell was a board member of the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM).37

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2017 - World Congress of Families / Budapest

The “Budapest Family Summit” on May 26-27, 2017, organized by the World Congress of Families, brought together many of the key actors of the anti-choice lobby group. Its opening speech was delivered by Victor Orbán. Other speakers included Harnwell, Alveda C. King, Natalya Yakunina, Ignacio Arsuaga, Sophia Kuby, and Luca Volontè.38

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2018 - Trisulti "Gladiator School"

The DHI became more widely known when in early 2018 Steve Bannon announced his by now failed plans to open a far-right Catholic cadre school (Bannon called it a "school of Gladiators") in the Abbey of Trisulti, a remote Italian monastery, with the help of the DHI - a project of which Deva was a primary backer.3 From February 2018 until March 2021, Harnwell was the director of the Abbey of Trisulti.2 In 2019, the DHI office moved from Rome to the Trisulti Abbey,39 however, after the lease was finally withdrawn in March 2021,40 it is currently unclear from where the DHI operates.

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2019

In January 2019, Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino stepped down from his role as DHI's Honorary President. Martino was followed by Cardinal Raymond Burke in that position who had served as President of the DHI’s Board of Advisors since 2013.41 Shortly after, however, in June 2019, Burke resigned from the DHI.

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2021 - War Room: Pandemic

From October 2021 to date Harnwell serves as "international editor" and co-host for Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room: Pandemic.2 As of May 2022, Harnwell has participated in in over 170 War Room shows.42 It may be speculated that in his role as international editor he is responsible for inviting Catholic hardliners from his orbit as interview guests.

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2022 - The Bow Group

As of 2022, Harnwell is listed as a "Research Fellow for judeo-christian western civilisation" at The Bow Group,5 dubbing itself the "World’s oldest conservative think tank."6 The Bow Group's list of alumni reads like a who-is-who of the British Right.43 Among the patrons is also Nirj Deva, Harnwell's longtime supporter.

The Dignitatis Humanae Institute is one of the partners of The Bow Group.

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