An eight-year-old bride, honor killings and female genital mutilation. Those are just three serious human rights abuses, which in theory, could be defended in individual countries by a new argument of traditional values. A new UN resolution adopted on 27 September after pressure from Russia, highlights the important role of 'family' and calls for 'a better understanding of humanity's traditional values'. In the resolution, no definition is given as to how this concept should be understood.
According to a human rigths lawyer at the Danish Center for Policy Studies (CEPOS), Jacob Mchangama, one cannot make any sense of traditional values as such without referring to a specific cultural and national context. And it is precisely this lack of precision that opens up a wide arrays of possibilities for abuse.
'Depending on how one interprets traditional values, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, in their countries, could invoke Islam a traditional value and thus legitimize a ban of religious minorities,' he said.
15 members voted against the resolution. Apart from Botswana, Costa Rica and Mauritius, only Western countries voted against the resolution. Not a single Western country supports the resolution. The U.S. justifies its no to the resolution as follows:
'The fundamental problem, from an American point of view, is that universal human rights can be trumped in cases where traditional values come into play,' writes ambassador Eileen Charberlain Donahao, U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council in a written statement to the Danish daily Information.
According to Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Danohoe, anyone who is part of a minority suffer under the consequences if the universal human rights are not respected.
Anyone who is part of a minority group in any society can be subject to majority group values and suffer negative consequences if universal human rights are not upheld. In addition to minorities, those who are vulnerable, such as young females, girls who might be subject to traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation, would be the type of case the US worries about.'
The Norwegian representative at the UN Human Rights Council does not believe that the resolution acknowledges how often traditional values have been misused to justify discrimination and violation of human rights.
'We have serious concerns that the undefined concept of “traditional values of humankind” may serve to undermine the norms laid down under international human rights law, rather than to promote human rights. Traditions and values changes over the time, and are viewed and interpreted differently by various actors in society. While there are some traditions in line with human rights, others are in contradictions with them. the Norwegian Representative of the UN Human Rights Council said.
Russia took the lead
Together with a number of other non-Western countries in the UN Human Rights Council, Russia was took the lead in promoting human rights through 'traditional values'. Last Thursday the resolution came to a vote and was adopted. This is worrying, says Stuart Halford, who is an advocacy advisor at Sexual Rights Initiative, an ngo based in Geneva. He believes that in the longer term, Russia's agenda will serve to justify the violation of human rights.
'In all likelihood, Russia will use this resolution to put forward a strong argument that traditional values are more important than human rights,'' Stuart Halford said.
According to Jacob Mchangama, the resolution is an indication that the countries that voted in favor of the resolution are drifting away from a universal conception of human rights, thus making it harder for the international community to criticize those countries that commit human rights violations. "Their goal is to defocalize from the traditional civic rights," he said.
Tanya Lockshina, a senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch in Moscow, concurs with this view. She believes that Russia is trying to stimulate a debate in the international community about the validity of human rights. She believes in particular that Russia is intent on trying to influence and change the debate on whether homosexuals should enjoy protection by human rights.
'It is an attempt to gain international approval of homophobic initiatives and to forge alliances with other countries that also discriminate against homosexuals,' Tanya Lockshina said.
According to her, it is homosexuals in particular who are targeted, and this also explains why Russia was the prime mover in adopting the resolution. So far, Russian law prohibits homosexual 'propaganda' in nine provinces. Such a 'propaganda' may consist of trivial matters such as wearing a T-shirt with a rainbow. The penalty is a minimum fine and it carries a maximum sentence of up to 15 days of administrative detention.
"The strongest argument we have in our struggle against discrimination is precisely that it is a violation of human rights. This is why Russia challenges the very notion that according to human rights, you are entitled to be gay', Tanya Lockshina said.
Legitimizing child brides
At the Danish Human Rights Institute, human rights experts are also deeply critical of the resolution.
"It seems unbalanced because it does not say anything about the negative aspects of 'traditional values' and how these are often used as a pretext for human rights abuses. This very lack of precision opens the door for possible abuses', said Fergus Kerrigan, who heads the legal program at Danish Human Rights Institute.
He also makes the point that the resolution is symptomatic of a trend which should be under constant surveillance.
"Besides homo-and bisexual and transgender people, women in many societies, should be wary of this trend. The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women often tells of how tradition and culture are being abused in defense of oppressive patterns and structures of power,' he said.
Recent years have seen mounting evidence that conservative and racial right-wing movements in the global policy arena have become more active in their efforts to convince UN members not to work for minorities’ and women's rights, said Tania Dethlefsen, head of the international section of Sex og Samfund, a Danish Family Planning Association,. Ms. Dethlefsen believes that the resolution opens a backdoor that enables member states to act in specific ways by invoking ’traditional values and norms’ as a means of justication.
’In some cultures, rape is allowed that rape, when it is comitted within a marriage. In other cultures, child marriage, female genital mutilation and gender-based violence are widely seen as legitimate’, Tania Dethlefsen said.
Stuart Halford however, stressed that even so called traditional values are best understood as a dynamic process, as opposed to a historically given set of norms handed down as unchanging value criteria.
’We must remember that only a few generations ago, women's right to work and vote for were considered to be against our former 'traditional values'. The resolution doesn’t not take historical dynamism into account. Traditions, cultures and social norms have always evolved and will never cease to do so,’ Stuart Halford said.
US statement: http://geneva.usmission.gov/2012/09/27/u-s-opposes-resolution-on-traditional-values-could-have-negative-effect-on-women-minorities-vulnerable-groups/
UN resolution: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/E/HRC/d_res_dec/A_HRC_21_L2.doc (doc file)