Traditional Values vs. Human Rights? Trending Traditional Values in the UN

Discourse about traditional values threatens to subvert the UN’s focus on promoting human rights. Source: US Mission to Geneva FlickrIntolerance seems to be the latest fashion in many countries. In the Russian Federation LGBT-activists are silenced by authorities infringing on freedom of speech, with the members of the music group Pussy Riot being the most well-known victims. A bill introduced in early 2013 in the same country criminalizes ill-defined acts of “homosexual propaganda” among under age youth. A clear violation of the freedom of expression and in contradiction with everyone’s equal access to all human rights, it discriminates Russian citizens on the grounds of sexual orientation. In March 2012, hundreds of thousands Parisians took to the street protesting against President Francois Hollande’s ‘marriage for everyone’ bill, allowing gay couples to marry and adopt children.

The harmful tradition of female genital mutilation has been practiced in many places around the world for centuries. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates that over 140 million girls and women have undergone mutilation. Another discriminatory scourge, in particular targeting girls, is child marriages which have severe adverse impacts on their life since they are often committed to slavery like relationship. OHCHR presents appalling figures showing that 46% of girls under 18 are married in South Asia; 38% in sub-Saharan Africa; 29% in Latin America and the Caribbean; 18% in the Middle East and North Africa. In Tanzania, Albinos have been murdered for their body parts which are used in witchcraft, violating their fundamental right to life.

The above mentioned occurrences are examples of the diverse scope of new and old practices abusing human rights of already vulnerable groups. Nevertheless, what binds them together are that the perpetrators resort to a conservative discourse of honor, culture and traditional values justifying the violations. In fact, these are not merely individual incidents on national level but manifest themselves on an international level through various resolutions in the United Nations Human Rights Council. This development brings the notion of traditional values on the one hand, and human rights on the other, into a new light.

By adopting resolutions promoting traditional values the discourse has now entered the United Nations. Adopted resolutions transmit to customary international law to which perpetrators of human rights abuses can refer to and deceivingly justify their actions.  In 2011, at the 16th Session of the Human Rights Council a resolution on Promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind was adopted through a vote. Of the Councils 47 Member States 24 voted in favor, 14 against and 7 states abstained.

The two-page long resolution requested the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee to prepare a study on how a better understanding and appreciation of traditional values of dignity, freedom and responsibility can contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights.

The rights of LGBT persons sometimes clash with so-called “traditional values” Source: FlickrThe first preliminary study was drafted by the Russian representative, Special Rapporteur Mr. Vladimir Kartashikin. In his report, he states that international human rights agreements, whether universal or regional, must be based on, and not contradict, the traditional values of humankind. Another striking feature of the preliminary study is the complete absence of notes. Not a single reference is given to academia or publications of any kind. One would be forgiven for assuming that the document is purely based upon Mr. Kartashikin’s own interpretation of the mandate and subjective ideas of traditional values.

Indeed the preliminary study received some heavy criticism. Advisory Committee member Mr. Wolfgang Heinz was alarmed by the draft expressing that the study failed to respond to the mandate given to the Committee. Mr Heinz underscored that the mandate was to study how traditional values could be used in the implementation of human right standards. Mr Kartashikin opposed this view, arguing that the mandate was to explore how dignity, freedom and responsibility could contribute to the universalization of human rights.

A final study was carried out by the Advisory Committees’s drafting group composed of teen members from different regions of the world. Besides recognizing negative impacts of traditional values, this report also puts an emphasis on the implementation of human rights. That is a shift from the first draft and displays a different interpretation of the mandate given by the Council. In addition, new chapters have been added setting the tone for a more balanced study. The drafting group also recalls that some traditional values have been used to justify subordination of women and minority groups in the world.

An extensive number of non-governmental organizations have expressed their grave concern on pushing this discourse in the Human Rights Council. One of the most active and influential NGOs in the Human Rights Council, International Service for Human Rights urges the Council to take an unequivocal stand against traditional values since they fear that the agenda of traditional values is more about preserving and protecting patriarchal, mono-cultural norms that discriminate against minority and marginalized individuals than actually protecting human right. Well-renowned Human Rights Watch echoes the concerns in a lengthy piece pointing out the many disastrous traditions around the world that violates human rights. They also underlines that traditions are subject to cultural diversity and may differ from country to country, from region to region whereas human rights are equal for all humans everywhere.

Hans Fridlund is Human Rights Assistant at the World Federation for United Nations Associations in Geneva

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