UN: "Traditional values" Resolution adopted at Twelfth session of HRC

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The resolution "Promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind in conformity with international human rights law" was adopted by a vote of 26 in favour, 15 against and six abstentions.
The promotion of traditional values does not necessarily mean the defense of patriarchal norms; women/human rights defenders have long sought to reclaim traditions and cultures from the purveyors of fundamentalist and reactionary ideologies. The Resolution, however, assumes that “traditional values” inevitably make a positive contribution to human rights; there is no recognition in the resolution that “traditional values” are frequently invoked to justify human rights violations.
Rather than talking of ‘traditional values’, we should refer to ‘traditional practices’. The former Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dr. Yakin Ertürk, has in her reports repeatedly addressed harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, honour killings, spousal abuse, dowry-related violence and customary laws that deny women’s equality. Such practices – from the Global North as well as from the Global South – are frequently legitimised by the values on which they are founded. Once the concept of “traditional values” is affirmed in a Human Rights Council Resolution, it will be introduced into all future discussions.

In presenting the draft resolution, Russia declined to define “traditional values” or explain what these meant. We are not alone in fearing these “traditional values” may be invoked to excuse violations of women, sexual minorities, and other vulnerable groups. Indeed many UN instruments and resolutions recognize that tradition and culture may be invoked to violate universal human rights. For example:

• HRC resolution 10/23, on the Independent Expert in the field of cultural rights, affirms that “no one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope”;

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action calls upon States to work towards the elimination of “the harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices, cultural prejudices and religious extremism” (para. 38);

• The Declaration on the elimination of Violence against Women (A/RES/48/104), for example, recognizes tradition practices harmful to women as a form of violence against women, includes amongst these harmful practices: “battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, and female genital mutilation.”

• HRC Resolution 7/29 on the Rights of the Child expresses concern at “the horrific scale and impact of all forms of violence against children, in all regions, in their homes and families, in schools, care and justice systems, workplaces and in communities, and urges States: … to take measures to change attitudes that condone or normalize any form of violence against children, including cruel, inhuman or degrading forms of discipline, harmful traditional practices and all forms of sexual violence” (OP 14(e), 2008).

• HRC Resolution 6/37 on the Elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief emphasises the need to address “the situations of violence and discrimination that affect many women as well as individuals from other vulnerable groups in the name of religion or belief or due to cultural and traditional practices” (PP 10 and OP 11(b));

• The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (A/CONF.177/20) requires governments to “refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations”;

• The African Women's Protocol requires States to “eradicate elements in traditional and cultural beliefs, practices and stereotypes which legitimise and exacerbate the … tolerance of violence against women”.