Traditional values: Do they help or hinder human rights protection?

What are “traditional values?” There is no universally agreed upon definition and so the answer often depends on one’s culture and life experience. That’s why this week’s collective exercise of the U.N. Human Rights Council Advisory Committee has proved challenging. The committee, composed of 18 experts, was established to serve as a think tank to the Human Rights Council. It has been called on to produce a study on how the understanding of “traditional values” can contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights.

The discussion at the U.N. around the concept of traditional values is controversial, to say the least. Human Rights First opposes efforts to elevate traditional values above or outside of the framework of universal human rights, a view we made known during the debate. An initial draft of the Advisory Committee’s study whole-heartedly lauded the merits of traditional values, without acknowledging that some of them violate international human rights standards. (For example, think about the “tradition” of female genital mutilation, which is still practiced in some parts of Africa. Or how traditions have played a role in justifying the subordination of women and minority groups in many parts of the world.) The draft initially also focused more on the responsibilities of individuals as rights-holders rather than on the duty of governments to protect those rights. This initial study was met with great concern by many U.N. delegations and civil society groups.

The Committee produced a second draft that was discussed on Monday. If endorsed by the experts, it may be put forward for discussion in the UN Human Rights Council as early as September 2012.

This time around, the updated wording of the study is largely improved.

The study importantly clarifies that “the prime responsibility to… protect human rights and fundamental freedoms lies with the State.” The entire edifice of international human rights law is built on the notion that all individuals have certain rights and the second draft of the study corrected the flawed focus of the first draft on individuals’ responsibilities rather than their rights.

The new text also affirms that no one may invoke traditional values as an excuse to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law. In other words, culture or tradition cannot be used as an argument to counter the “universality, indivisibility and interdependence” of human rights.

Within the framework of universally recognized human rights, however, one can appreciate how traditional values can be a useful tool to promote freedom, dignity and non-discrimination. The text importantly affirms that “explaining international human rights principles in ways that resonate in diverse cultures and traditions” may be helpful in advancing human rights.

Human Rights First has appealed to traditional values as part of its strategy to build coalitions to fight discrimination, hostility and violence.  In the past, Human Rights First joined forces with Muslim groups who reaffirmed from a Koranic perspective that the concept of “defamation of religions” runs counter to Islamic values. We have also worked with faith leaders who, through the prism of their Christian values, have spoken out against other human rights abuses – such as the criminalization of homosexuality and violence targeting LGBGT individuals. Just last month, 46 American Christian leaders issued a public statement expressing solidarity with LGBT Ugandans in the face of “increased bigotry and hatred.”

So, do “traditional values” help or hinder human rights protections? They can do both. Values that undermine basic human rights protections should be challenged. Other values, however, can help to build bridges and cement coalitions that promote better human rights protections. How this debate ultimately plays out at the U.N. remains to be seen.


Published on August 9, 2012


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