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Member states of UN Human Rights Council urged to reject "traditional values" concept


ARTICLE 19 calls on the member states of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to reject absolutely the concept of 'traditional values', and state their opposition to any future resolution to advance this agenda. This call comes ahead of the debate on the report on 'traditional values' by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that will be presented at the 24th session of the HRC.

The 'traditional values' agenda threatens to undermine the universality of human rights and jeopardise the fundamental basis of the international human rights system. It is part of a dangerous initiative to legitimise discrimination against minority, vulnerable, and disenfranchised groups and limit civic space for the expression of dissent.

ARTICLE 19 is urging all people who value the universality of human rights to take action to demand that the HRC reject 'traditional values' at this Session.


Since 2009, the Russian Federation has tabled three resolutions at the HRC attempting to give legal force to the concept of 'traditional values'. The third resolution, adopted in September 2012, affirmed 'traditional values' as a vehicle for promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms, and called on the OHCHR to report on 'best practices' in their application.

The resolution divided the HRC: 25 states voted in favour; 15 voted against; and 7 abstained. ARTICLE 19 strongly criticised the resolution. This was partly because the call for the OHCHR report pre-empted the conclusions of an expert study by the Advisory Committee requested in 2011. This showed a flagrant disregard for the established processes of the HRC, and denied States the opportunity to fully examine the concerns raised by the Advisory Committee's study.

The OHCHR report will be presented to the HRC on 13 September 2013, followed by a debate where States will have the opportunity to respond to it. The collated submissions in the report demonstrate that 'traditional values' remains deeply divisive, both in terms of the legitimacy of the concept itself, and for its suitability as a vehicle for bridging different understandings on how best to implement international human rights protections.

In spite of strong international criticism, the Russian Federation have indicated that they will continue pushing the 'traditional values' agenda at the HRC.

What is wrong with 'tradition'?

ARTICLE 19 considers the 'traditional values' agenda to pose a serious danger to international cooperation in the implementation of universal human rights protection:

* 'Traditional values' go against the mandate of the HRC to promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights for all people, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner. The 'traditional values' agenda threatens to undo all the progress made since the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), which is 20 years old this year. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights constitutes an authoritative statement on the shared values of all humanity, and is the foundation for 60 years of progress in developing binding human rights protection. No compelling case has been made for changing this blueprint by reference to the divisive concept of 'traditional values'.

* There is no agreed definition of 'traditional values' and successive HRC resolutions have failed to provide one. The term is inherently subjective, intentionally ambiguous, and designed to undermine the clarity of international human rights protection.

* None of these HRC resolutions acknowledge the abuse of 'traditional values' and practices by States to legitimise discrimination, silence dissent, and justify human rights violations. While many cultural practices have a positive role for implementing universal human rights protections, others are harmful and incompatible with human rights protection.

* None of these HRC resolutions speak of the obligation on States "to take sustained and systemic action to modify or eliminate stereotypes and negative, harmful and discriminatory practices justified by traditional values", as the HRC Advisory Committee stated in its report last March. This is reflected in the VDPA and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), as well as regional instruments, such as the Protocol to the African Charter of Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

* The 'traditional values' agenda is a smokescreen to obscure and legitimise the exclusion of minority and disfranchised groups in society. 'Traditional values', as advanced by these HRC resolutions, are synonymous with majoritarian, conservative and mono-cultural conceptions of what some people think human rights should be. These same people encourage human rights violations against vulnerable and sometimes unpopular minorities, often for their own political gain and to distract from failures to address more pressing political, social, and economic concerns. Just a few examples:

o In Russia, Moldova, and Ukraine, bans on so-called "propaganda" of "non-traditional sexual relationships" have been adopted or proposed, supposedly to protect 'traditional values' and the rights of children. Similar laws are seen in Nigeria and have been tabled in Uganda. These laws stigmatise and legitimise violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, silence them in the public sphere, and deprive them of information essential to a full education and for access to health care, including HIV treatment. International human rights bodies, including the Human Rights Committee and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, have been emphatic that these bans violate the right to freedom of expression and the right to equality (for more, read ARTICLE 19's policy brief). The adoption of the recent federal 'propaganda' ban in Russia should be considered within the context of a much broader crackdown on civil society and minority groups in the country.

o Violence against women remains a global concern, and shows that no country has a monopoly on harmful 'traditional' values. Around the world, 'traditional' systems of patriarchy continue to make women economically dependent, and frequently deny them equal rights to political participation and freedom of expression. There are stark differences in the protection of women's property rights and nationality rights, their freedom to access health care or education. 'Traditions' also justify, minimise or excuse violence, harassment and other rights violations against women, and women human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to attack. The VDPA and CEDAW place a legal obligation on States to change this status quo and address impunity for such attacks.

o The international human rights framework already safeguards the rights of national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples to protect and promote their cultural identities. These rights are frequently violated, and these groups excluded from important decisions. ARTICLE 19 continues to work in the Amazon Basin with indigenous communities denied their right to information or to participate in decision-making on large-scale development projects. Some proponents for 'traditional values' argue the concept benefits such minorities, but in reality it only detracts from the implementation of existing instruments that provide specific protection, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

ARTICLE 19 calls on the HRC to reject the concept of 'traditional values' once and for all and to return to its task of effectively promoting and protecting human rights for all people. The HRC must restate its commitment to universality and non-discrimination.

Take action against 'traditional values'. Protect the universality of human rights.

Donwload the leaflet "States Must Reject 'Traditional Values' "
international_traditional_values_leaflet_a19.pdf (3318 KB)

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