UN Human Rights Council Passes “Traditional Values” Resolution

The UN Human Rights Council, responsible for promoting universal respect for all human rights, forgot its own mandate recently when it adopted a resolution supporting “traditional values”.

The General Assembly resolution that
established the Human Rights Council back in 2006 decided “that the Council
shall be responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all
human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind
and in a fair and equal manner” (A/RES/60/251, 3 April 2006, operative
paragraph 2).

But On Friday 2 October, the Council took no
account of human rights law when states adopted a resolution in support of
“traditional values”.

The full title of the adopted resolution is
“Promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding
of traditional values of humankind.” Just a few days previously, when Russia,
the main sponsor of the resolution, tabled the draft, the title finished with
the stipulation that “traditional values of humankind” should be “in conformity
with international human rights law”.  

This promotion of traditional values
without taking account of human rights law is very disturbing and something we
need to be factor into future strategies.

In explaining their position on the
resolution, several states commented on Russia’s refusal to provide a
definition for “traditional values” in the resolution. Working on this
resolution we had looked for references to “traditional values” in human rights
standards, outcome documents of the world conferences, resolutions from the
General Assembly and the Human Rights Council (and its predecessor, the
Commission on Human Rights), human rights treaty monitoring bodies, independent
experts (the UN Special Rapporteurs), and other UN sources. We didn’t find many

What is there in abundance is documentation
on violations of human rights arising from harmful traditional practices. We
compiled these sources and pointed out that previous UN resolutions from the
General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and its predecessor the Commission
on Human Rights, on rights of the Child, the elimination of all forms of
intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief, and violence
against women have addressed the threat posed by harmful traditional practices
to human rights.

The “traditional values” resolution is
tabled under item 8 of the Council’s agenda, which is entitled “Follow-up and
implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action”. Paragraph 38
of that Programme of Action imposes upon States a positive obligation to work
towards the elimination of “the harmful effects of certain traditional or
customary practices, cultural prejudices and religious extremism”.

But states supporting the draft resolution
were adamant in the informal negotiating meetings that traditional values and
traditional practices were separate. Thus something like slavery – one example
suggested by one state trying to square the draft with human rights – could be
condemned as a negative practice and human rights violation, and that rendered
it apparently irrelevant to the noble intentions of the draft resolution.
However, they fail to recognize that slavery is based on a value that suggests
some persons are superior to others.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner of
Human Rights, in its Fact Sheet No.23
on Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children
describes the dangers of this link between some of these values and practices.
It states: “Traditional cultural practices reflect values and beliefs held by
members of a community for periods often spanning generations. Every social
grouping in the world has specific traditional cultural practices and beliefs,
some of which are beneficial to all members, while others are harmful to a
specific group, such as women. Despite their harmful nature and their violation
of international human rights laws, such practices persist because they are not
questioned and take on an aura of morality in the eyes of those practising

So a resolution that we had lobbied against
was adopted. It becomes another development that we will need to monitor closely,
to counter any efforts to build on this fairly basic text with more explicitly
restrictive provisions. But there is good news in what happened last Friday
morning in Geneva too.

The resolution was adopted by a vote, not
by consensus as Russia had wanted. Consensus is always more powerful, but in
this case it is arguably necessary. Of the 47 members of the Human Rights
Council, 21 did not sign up to this endorsement of “a common set of values that
belong to humankind in its entirety” (from the preamble of the resolution). So,
not such a common set of values, then? South Korea commented that bringing the
resolution to a vote contradicted Russia’s stated goal when they introduced
this initiative, which was to broaden the consensus base for human rights.

And the voting pattern gives us some good
news and provides useful insights for future strategies.

There was cross-regional opposition to the
resolution. It was Norway, not an EU state, who called for the vote on the
resolution. And Chile, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, and South Korea opposed it,
along with the EU and the USA. Mexico spoke strongly against it in their
explanation of vote, expressing concern that the resolution could introduce
cultural relativism.

Argentina, Brazil, Ghana and Uruguay were
amongst those states that abstained. It is disappointing that Argentina and
Brazil chose to abstain, as those two delegations had strongly opposed the
draft resolution at the June session. If you listen to Argentina’s explanation
of vote (available in the video archives for 2 October on the Human Rights
Council website at http://www.un.org/webcast/unhrc/archive.asp?go=091002), it
strongly suggests a “no” vote: Argentina states that they could not support an
initiative in which “traditional values” were referred to for the first time,
without clarifying what exactly was meant under that term. So next time out we
need to pay more attention to these MERCOSUR countries.

Ghana abstained. Together with Mauritius’
vote against the resolution, that broke any block vote of African countries in
favour of the resolution – something that was said to be in place at the time
of the June session.

Also positive is that even states who did not
vote against the resolution made clear in their explanations of vote that this resolution should not be used to justify
human rights violations.
Senegal, who voted in favour, stated its
commitment to the universality and interdependence of human rights. It added “taking
into account such values should in no way, shape or form jeopardise the
principles that we have adopted in the sphere of human rights”. Bolivia also
voted in favour but emphasised that in no case would it accept that traditional
values included acts that are contrary to human rights. Ukraine abstained and stated
that it “strongly objects to any attempts to substitute them by those national
traditional values or regional particularities which run contrary to the
universally recognised human values and the very essence of the body of human
rights and fundamental freedoms established in contemporary international human
rights law.”

It is also interesting that Bolivia cited
its Indigenous Peoples as a rationale for supporting the resolution. Most of the
positive references to tradition to be found in UN human rights sources relate
to the human rights of Indigenous Peoples. The preamble to the Vienna
Declaration and Programme of Action (1993), far from recourse to common values,
reaffirms diversity, namely “the commitment of the international community to
ensure their enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and to
respect the value and diversity of [Indigenous Peoples’] cultures and

Given all of this, were we wrong to be so concerned
about the resolution? It does, after all, only call for the Office of the High
Commissioner of Human Rights to convene a workshop. Were we, as Cuba accused in
its general comment after vote, guilty of holding preconceived notions against
the resolution, instead of approaching it with an open mind? The proceedings
themselves gave us strong grounds for concern.  Indonesia stepped up to remind us that the resolution really
did have a particular view of tradition, stating that “traditional family values…serve
an important good and solid foundation in the strengthening of human rights
principles and norms.”

The workshop will provide an opportunity
for us to demonstrate that traditional, or any other, values cannot be invoked
in any way that is inconsistent with human rights law. There are really
knowledgeable experts who will be vital voices to have at the workshop, along
with good representation from civil society.

Russia and the 28 other sponsors of the
resolution refused to reaffirm that no
state has the right to invoke traditional values to
counter, limit or
avoid their obligations to promote and
protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.  This resolution never belonged in the Human Rights Council. And
at the workshop in 2010 we need to be ready to prove that.