Statement to HRC Advisory Committee on Traditional Values

Published: August 10, 2011

– delivered by John Fisher, on behalf of Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

Thank you, Mr. Chairperson, distinguished members of the Advisory Committee.

We appreciate this opportunity to take the floor on behalf of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Our Network shares the concerns about attempts to import concepts of “traditional values” into the international human rights framework, particularly because those most impacted by HIV/AIDS are often amongst the most marginalised in many societies.

We followed this issue closely at the Human Rights Council, from the 12th session through to the present, participated in the OHCHR experts’ seminar, and were pleased to join the written statement submitted to this Committee by more than 65 NGOs from countries around the world, including Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Italy, Sudan, Fiji, Japan, Egypt, Canada, Russia, Germany, Saint Lucia, Turkey, Mongolia and elsewhere.

The Russian Federation, as lead sponsor of the resolution, suggests that placing emphasis on traditional values is designed to enhance respect for human rights. If that is the case, one might expect civil society would embrace the resolution as a valuable tool to assist our efforts to advance human rights. Instead, NGOs from all regions of the world have joined together to express to you our serious concerns.

While virtually all panellists at the OHCHR experts’ seminar expressed caution and concern at a traditional values approach, we were admittedly not reassured by the comments of the distinguished panellist from the Russian Federation. She stated that traditional values are needed to thwart “extreme leftist feminists [who] with totalitarian zeal are damning traditional concepts of morality … No democracy allows the minority to insult everything sacred for the majority”.

So you can perhaps understand our concern at the potential of a traditional values approach to erode minority rights and international standards, and by attempts to position tradition as static, monolithic and a reflection of majority values.

Personally, I have never heard a State invoke traditional values to advance human rights. It is in the nature of those in power to resist change. Those who benefit most from the status quo are more likely to appeal to tradition to maintain their power and privilege. Those most marginalised, disenfranchised, whose needs are most vulnerable to being overlooked by the State – in short those most susceptible to human rights violations – have the most to lose from a traditional values approach.

Whereas traditional values are often invoked to justify past practice or resist change, human rights norms frequently do require changes to past practice to ensure conformity with international human rights standards. Indeed, as international Covenants and Declarations have recognised, States have a positive obligation – indeed a responsibility – to work towards the elimination of harmful stereotypes, values, traditions and practices that are inconsistent with international human rights law. For example, paragraph 38 of 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” and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women similarly affirms that “a change in the traditional role of men as well as the role of women in society and in the family is needed to achieve full equality between men and women”.

How may the Advisory Committee take these concerns into account in the preparation of its report?
Firstly, we welcome the proposal to create a drafting group, reflecting appropriate regional and gender balance. We also encourage production of a draft at an early stage to ensure adequate opportunities for consultation and input by all stakeholders.

Secondly, we encourage the Committee to be explicit from the outset in affirming the importance of integration of a gender perspective throughout its report. As Committee-Members will be aware, this is required by HRC resolution 6/30, and nowhere is gender integration more important than in the context of an area that impacts on the human rights of women as much as traditional values. In similar vein, we encourage the Committee to treat equality and non-discrimination as cross-cutting issues relevant to all aspects of the report.

Thirdly, we feel it is important that the Committee in its report clearly articulate the serious risks inherent in a traditional values approach.

While we acknowledge that the resolution calls for you to consider how a better understanding of traditional values can contribute to human rights, this can only be achieved by also understanding and articulating the risks and challenges of such an approach. The understanding will be incomplete if we only consider half the picture. The HRC resolution itself in a preambular paragraph stresses that traditional values may not be invoked to justify harmful practices violating human rights, and we believe it is important that this also be reflected in the Committee’s report.

Fourthly, care must be taken not to elevate “responsibility” to a norm equivalent to equality and dignity. As Mr. Kartashkin noted, the first article of the UDHR outlines the values underpinning international human rights law: all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Freedom, equality, dignity, rights. There is no mention of responsibility. In international law, individuals are rights-holders; States are duty-bearers. In the current context, therefore, responsibility can only be understood in light of the responsibility of States to promote and protect the human rights of all persons, and the responsibility of States to work to eliminate harmful and discriminatory values, stereotypes and attitudes.

Finally, as many Advisory Committee members have noted, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Many of these issues have already been explored, for example in the significant work of Mme. Warzazi in this area, and more recently reaffirmed in the OHCHR experts’ seminar, the conclusions of which are available to you.

These conclusions reinforce many of the concerns you have heard today, including the fact that traditions change, are often contested within societies, and that those in authority often have very different understandings of tradition than members of marginalised groups. In similar vein, we would encourage the Committee to proactively consult with stakeholders including the Independent Expert on Cultural Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, both of whom have also done much work in this area.

In conclusion, the answer to the question of “how” certain values enhance understanding of human rights can, in our view, best be found in human rights education. We concur with Ms. Zulficar that the focus must be on implementation of existing standards. States are already free to promote existing human rights norms within their own cultural contexts in ways that resonate with the populace, but the starting and ending point, and the key challenge which faces you as a Committee, is to safeguard the human rights framework and ensure that in promoting human rights in diverse contexts there is no erosion of international norms and standards.

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