Advisory Committee discussing problematic study on traditional values and human rights

Published: February 16, 2012

The Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (the Committee) will meet for its 8th session from 20 to 24 February 2012. The 18 member Committee, whose role is to act as a think-tank for the Human Rights Council (the Council) and consider issues at its request, will consider various reports and form recommendations for submission to the Council in the week prior to its 19th session. The draft programme of work and annotated provisional agenda are available here on the Advisory Committee Web site.
The report which is of greatest concern and which has drawn criticism from a number of NGOs is the report on ‘promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of the traditional values of humankind’, set out as ‘dignity, freedom and responsibility’. At its 7th session, following Council resolution 16/3, the Committee established a drafting group to prepare this study, comprising Ms Boisson de Chazournes, Mr Chen, Ms Chung, Mr Karakora, Mr Kartashkin (Rapporteur), Mr Okafor, Ms Reyes Prado, Mr Seetulsingh and Mr Soofi (Chairperson). The drafting group’s final report is to be submitted at the 9th session, for submission to the Council at its 21st session, however the preliminary research on the study will be presented to the Committee in February (see here for official languages other than English).
The preliminary report begins by stating that there is ‘as yet no accepted definition of the term “traditional values of humankind”’. One of the main criticisms of the report is that in trying to formulate a definition, the drafting group has interpreted ‘values’ as being inherently positive, while nevertheless acknowledging that ‘tradition’ can be an obstacle to development and change and thus have a negative impact on human rights. The Russian Federation, who originally proposed the study at the Council sought to remove the negative connotations of tradition. However this denial of the existence of any negative values, such as racism and xenophobia, could add to the problem of states using traditional values as an excuse for human rights violations.
Another problem identified is the possible misuse of the concept of ‘dignity’ as a traditional value, particularly in reference to women. Unless the report affirms the language used in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) referring to ‘the inherent dignity and worth of the human person’, there is a risk of the dignity concept being used to justify traditional roles for women, contrary to human rights.
This is also an issue with the concept of ‘responsibility’ as a value, which is not clearly defined. The placing of this ambiguous concept on an equal footing with the inherent dignity and worth of the human person has drawn concern, as the principle of universality of human rights does not allow these to be contingent on an ill-defined notion of responsibility.
The report also includes a section on the importance of families and communities in the promotion of human rights, and the role of the family in forming a person’s values. References to ‘the family’ have been criticised as being based on assumptions about its positive moral influence. The use of the word ‘the’ does not acknowledge different forms of family, which could for example exclude same-sex relationships. Equally, in making these assumptions about family, the report fails to recognise that families are often sites of human rights abuses, including FGM and honour killings.
In light of these serious concerns, it is hoped that the 8th session of the Committee will provide a forum for thorough discussion of these issues, and perhaps be the basis a new and more critical approach to the report on traditional values. NGOs are able to make written and oral statements on substantive issues at the session. The relevant information on the procedures for this can be found here.

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