Why the Fuss? Understanding the Human Rights Council’s Resolution on Traditional Values

Source: US Mission to Geneva

On September 27, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a contentious resolution on the relationship between human rights and traditional values.  Though only two pages long, the resolution reignited concerns that State claims of traditional values might be used to thwart the existing human rights framework rather than strengthening it.  Specifically, human rights advocates remain wary of traditional values language because it remains unclear exactly what defines “traditional values.”

The tabling of Resolution A/HRC/21/L.2 prior to the Council’s Advisory Committee final report on traditional values and human rights, which is expected next year, further strengthened doubts regarding the intentions of the States who sponsored the resolution.  In 2009 the Human Rights Council tasked the Advisory Committee with investigating this topic, and the Advisory Committee issued a preliminary report in June 2012, which remains open for State and civil society consultations. Although the resolution on traditional values acknowledged that the Advisory Committee’s report was not yet finished, this did little to assuage criticism that the resolution could make it easier for States to evade their responsibilities under human rights law.

Traditional values can complement or undermine human rights

Throughout several paragraphs the resolution emphasizes that human rights are “universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent, and mutually reinforcing” and that “that traditions shall not be invoked to justify practices contrary to human dignity and violating international human rights law”, however these reaffirms are also hedged in assertions that traditional values have a role in “the development of human rights norms and standards”.

State sponsors of the resolution, that include Belarus, China, Cuba, North Korea, Myanmar, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela, argue that human rights are a distilled version of traditional values and accordingly it only makes sense that local societies infuse universal rights, like the right to education, with their own values and customs.  In this regard, the European Court of Human Rights has agreed that country-specific traditional values can inform universal rights through its doctrine of “margin of appreciation,” by which it allows member countries a certain degree of leeway in how meet obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.  For example, in 2006 the Court ruled that parents’ right to educate their children was somewhat limited by the fact that Germany valued group-learning as a way to build a cohesive society.

However, as cautioned by the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, traditional values could also  providing the opportunity for countries to shirk their fundamental human rights obligations under thin claims of adhering to traditions. This technique is nothing new for infringements on human rights. As just one example, in 1999 the European Court of Human Rights rejected arguments by the government of San Marino that new parliament members must take a traditional oath containing religious affirmations.  The Court held that the oath violated the European Convention’s provision on freedom of religion, regardless of being consistent with San Marino’s traditional practice and values.

Several UN conferences have also warned against the the danger of claimed traditional values being used to chipping away at human rights protections.  For example, the Beijing Platform for Action from the UN’s fourth World Conference on Women specifically warns “[a]ny harmful aspect of certain traditional customary or modern practices that violates the rights of women should be prohibited and eliminated.”  The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action from the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, similarly addressed the harm of “certain traditional or customary practices…,” reminding countries they must, “regardless of their political, economic and cultural system, …promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Yet despite these clear principles, the vigorous debate on the Human Rights Council resolution Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2011 still saw several States claiming traditional and religious morals as justification for excluding LGBTI minorities from human right guarantees of equality and non-discrimination.

Need for clarity and inquiry, not generalized sentiments

At the very least, mixing undefined traditional values with human rights risks creating confusion about countries’ obligations by suggesting that human rights are merely guidelines that can be bent by a given culture. Without a firm foundation in international law – unlike human rights – traditional values are especially problematic for institutions like the Human Rights Committee, established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that are tasked with assessing whether a State is complying with their international obligations. Worse yet without a shared definition for traditional values to prevent widespread misapplication and abuse, the resolution potentially opens a new door for States to argue for revised “understandings” of human rights whenever and however it suits their purpose.

The recent Human Rights Council resolution did little to advance understanding about the role of traditional values in relation to human rights.  Rather, it highlighted the need for well thought-out inquiries into shared traditional values and how they can appropriately strengthen a human rights discourse to be more effective in a given community.  Based on the Advisory Committee’s critiques of the resolution and its preliminary report, the Committee’s final report will likely address these issues, but due to the ever-evolving nature of tradition and human rights, the conversation will surely continue well past the publication of the final report.