International: OHCH Seminar on traditional values and human rights


On Monday 4 October 2010 OHCHR organised a seminar on 'Traditional Values and Human Rights'. The seminar was the outcome of a controversial resolution presented by the Russian Federation and adopted last year at the Human Rights Council's September session (Resolution 12/21 on promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind in conformity with international human rights law). The stated purpose of the seminar was to discuss how traditional values can contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights. It was organised as a series of panel discussions with experts, primarily from an academic background. Regrettably, no civil society speakers were included as panellists. However, a number of NGO representatives were able to speak from the floor. While the seminar was well-attended by States, very few took part in the debate (only Belgium, the Netherlands, the USA, Ireland, Cuba, China, and Egypt spoke).

Panellists' presentations were delivered under a series of broad headings. Whilst some of these headings - such as 'traditional values vs. traditional practices' – created unhelpful framing for the debate, others did allow for key aspects of the issue to be covered. Whilst several of the panellists interventions were rather theoretical, others were able to connect the debate to the experiences of individuals and communities. The absence of the voice of human rights defenders was noted and a call was made for this to be addressed in any further such debate. The discussion divided along two main lines - between those who argued that values rooted within traditions and cultures are not given sufficient recognition in the human rights framework, and those who warned about any legitimacy being given to alternative value systems which are not consonant with international human rights norms. Several NGO participants expressed concern about the invocation of tradition and culture to justify human rights violations. During the debate there seemed to a general acknowledgment that human rights can be positively promoted precisely by drawing on cultural particularities.

In her introductory statement, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay, said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) drew from cultures and traditions across the world and represented universal values, such as desires for liberty, dignity and freedom. She noted some actors, for political or other reasons, deny the universality of human rights rights, and seek to use arguments of tradition and culture to oppose them. She firmly rejected attempts to set traditional values against human rights and reaffirmed the obligation of States to promote and protect human rights regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems. Her comment, that in no country has 'any single woman, man or child ever stood to demand the right to be tortured, summarily executed, starved or denied medical care in the name of their culture', strongly illustrated her point. She added that tradition is a complex notion that changes over time and is interpreted differently by various actors in society.

In the keynote address that followed, the Executive Director of UNFPA, Ms Thoraya Obaid, echoed the High Commissioner's message that traditional values could never be used as an excuse for violating human rights. She said culture must be taken into account to effectively promote human rights. Adopting a culturally-sensitive approach to human rights was essential in effecting progress, as traditions and beliefs are often more influential on people's behaviour than the law, she said. For example, violence against women, such as female genital mutilation and child marriage, still persist in some communities despite laws criminalising the practices. Ms Obaid also made the point that culture is not static, but rather is made by people and can be changed by people. She said change that contributes to human rights cannot be imposed from the outside but must come from within communities and societies. To this end, international actors in the field of human rights must engage at the cultural level, she said, implying a need to support communities to review and negotiate around their values and practices as they relate to human rights.

Ms Natalia Narochnitskaya from the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in Paris delivered the opening remarks. As a former Russian diplomat to the UN in New York, it was not surprising her presentation seemed to reflect the views of the Russian Federation on a broad range of issues, not all of which were clearly related to the topic of the seminar. She broadly opposed globalisation and any loss of, or interference with, sovereignty of States. She argued human rights are generally manipulated for political ends and the worst violators of human rights have been 'anti-traditional, revolutionary, and anti-Christian'. She advanced the view that those promoting human rights have 'attacked' culture and tradition. She defended the family as the natural group unit, saying the UDHR stressed the importance of the family rather than the individual. She warned against attacks on the State, community and family. She also said libertarianism could lead to social decline.

Professor Tom Zwart presented his work on a 'receptor approach' to human rights promotion, which also recognises the importance of local values and traditions to human rights implementation. However, his theory goes further by suggesting States can maintain their own value systems while implementing their human rights obligations. He also argued States were free to choose how to give effect to the human rights treaties to which they are a party. He went as far as saying States are not required to use treaties or rights in their implementation efforts. He will be testing this new theory in collaboration with academics in China.

Ms Monica Chuji outlined the concept of 'sumak kawsay' (or living in harmony and living fully), a worldview of indigenous Bolivian and Ecuadorian peoples, related to human rights. She said the cultural values of these indigenous peoples were based on principles of dignity and equality, and recognition that people are part of nature. Integral to this value system is the display of respect towards all individuals and a deep connection to nature. She stressed the importance of these traditional values being extended to all areas of life, including the philosophical, ethical, spiritual and economic dimensions.

Doctor Eckart Klein focused on human dignity as a value underpinning human rights. He stated that human dignity does not entitle individuals to unrestricted behaviour and that States can restrict rights without encroaching on human dignity, provided restrictions are applied in accordance with international law. He underlined the importance of maintaining the diversity of societies and cultures. He also stressed human rights are evolving, and there is therefore a need to remain open to further developments. The recognition of the rights of women and slaves are examples of progress in human rights, he said. Another example of progress presented by Dr Klein was that criminalisation of consensual homosexual activity among adults is no longer in accordance with international law.

Professor Patrice Meyer-Birch supported the idea that diversity of values is compatible with universality. He also argued that human rights should be understood in their cultural context but distanced himself from any notion of cultural relativism. He encouraged a greater focus on the link between individual rights and the value of community and cultural values. Further, he called for recognition of the internal diversity within cultures, rather than promotion of the notion of one static cultural reality.

On the same panel, was Professor Joseph Prabhu who drew from the work of Mahatma Gandhi and John Rawls in discussing the relationship between rights and responsibilities. He seemed to echo comments made by Ms Chuji in arguing there is a cosmic order that needs to be protected. He suggested human rights protection should go beyond the individual person and greater focus should be given to this larger order. He also underlined the crucial role of civil society as a mediator for implementation of human rights. Like many other speakers, he underlined the diversity within cultures and the need for continued intercultural dialogue.

The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms Rashida Manjoo, spoke about the persistence of cultural practices that prevent equal enjoyment of human rights. She considered it a positive development that violence against women in domestic contexts is no longer considered a 'private' issue. She said dominant cultural paradigms, such as deeply rooted patriarchal values, have resulted in perceptions that women are weak and vulnerable. These have undermined women's status in all parts of the world, she said. Ms Manjoo cautioned against reducing violence against women to a cultural issue. She also warned against interpretations of culture as static and monolithic, and the portrayal of some cultures as inherently violent and detrimental to women. She pointed out there are elements in all cultures that can be used positively by women. She called for the rejection of cultural essentialism, which fails to recognise women's agency in the development of culture. Finally she stated that, while traditional values can be a sensitive issue, this should not stand in the way of equal rights for all.

During the discussions concerns were raised from the floor by some State delegations (Netherlands, Belgium, USA, Ireland) and a large number of NGOs, that the concept of traditional values could undermine universal principles contained in international human rights instruments. For example, women's rights, the rights of minorities and other vulnerable groups. The concern that discrimination and other human rights violations are often justified in the name of cultural traditions, and are legitimised by State structures and systems that are often gender-biased, featured prominently in the debate.

It was noteworthy that a representative of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch spoke from the floor of the need to protect religion and its symbols. The presence of several representatives of the church seemed to indicate one of the significant driving forces behind the Russian Federation's initiative on the issue of traditional values. The representative also called for a common code of behaviour towards religions that would ensure greater media responsibility in addressing religious issues. He also suggested religious persons should play a greater role in the development of human rights, and that these persons should be selected by religious leaders.

Ireland cited examples of where human rights conditions were improved after traditions had been broken (such as women's right to vote). It said human rights are evolving. Ireland insisted human rights standards must be upheld by all persons regardless of their 'traditional values'.

The seminar was brought to a close by the Independent Expert on cultural rights, Ms Farida Shaheed, who said the debate had been both divergent and convergent. She noted there was broad agreement on several important points. These included that common values that have helped develop human rights are inscribed in the UDHR, which is a common standard for achievement. The UDHR is also a framework for cross-cultural dialogue and understanding. Moreover, there was agreement that all rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated and mutually reinforcing. She said there was no universal understanding of tradition and traditional values, which remained a vague concept. On the other hand she emphasised that the culture of human rights exists in all parts of the world, even if the term 'human rights' is not used. Like other speakers, she highlighted the need to preserve the cultural diversity within and among communities.

She raised questions about who should decide on and define traditional values, what constitutes a tradition, after how long a period can one speak of tradition, and how big a group must adhere to a practice for it to be considered tradition. She argued traditions must continually be developed and reinterpreted to remain living. In this regard, she underlined the responsibility of States to create space to allow all people to define and reinvent culture and tradition, and to argue and negotiate their rights. Finally she reaffirmed that traditional values should never be used to fragment international human rights standards.

The Human Rights Council resolution for the convening of this seminar states that OHCHR should now submit a summary of the proceedings of the event to the Human Rights Council. This report can be expected in March or June 2011.