The Trouble With Tradition When "Values" Trample Over Rights

Published: January 31, 2013

“Tradition!” proclaims Tevye the milkman, in his foot-stomping opening to the musical Fiddler on the Roof. “Tradition!”

Tevye’s invocation of the familiar as a buffer against the vagaries of his hardscrabble life rings true—after all, what is more reassuring, more innocuous, than the beliefs and practices of the past?

Which is why the resolution passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in September 2012 seems, at first blush, to be so benign.

Spearheaded by Russia, it calls for “promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind.” It warns that traditions cannot be invoked to contravene rights, and even mentions such bedrock human rights instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1993 Vienna Declaration, while calling for a survey of “best practices”—all in the name of “promoting and protecting human rights and upholding human dignity.”

By the sound of it, the resolution deserves a standing ovation.

But a close look at the context from which this resolution arose reveals that traditional values are often deployed as an excuse to undermine human rights. And in declaring that “all cultures and civilizations in their traditions, customs, religions and beliefs share a common set of values,” the resolution invokes a single, supposedly agreed-upon value system that steamrolls over diversity, ignores the dynamic nature of traditional practice and customary laws, and undermines decades of rights-respecting progress for women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, among others.

In countries around the world, Human Rights Watch has documented how discriminatory elements of traditions and customs have impeded, rather than enhanced, people’s social, political, civil, cultural, and economic rights.

In Saudi Arabia, authorities cite cultural norms and religious teachings in denying women and girls the right to participate in sporting activities—“steps of the devil” on the path to immorality, as one religious leader called them (Steps of the Devil, 2012). In the United States in the early 1990s, “traditional values” was the rallying cry for evangelist Pat Robertson’s “Culture War”—code for opposition to LGBT and women’s rights that he claimed undermined so-called family values. Today, it is familiar rhetoric of the US religious right, which has used the same language to oppose gay marriage and to accuse political opponents of undermining tradition and “Western civilization.” And in Kenya, the customary laws of some ethnic communities discriminate against women when it comes to property ownership and inheritance; while some traditional leaders have supported transforming these laws, many others defend them as embodying “tradition” (Double Standards, 2003). As one woman told us, “They talk about African traditions, but there is no tradition you can speak of—just double standards.”  

International human rights law—including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Protocol to the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa—calls for customary and traditional practices that violate human rights to be transformed to remove discriminatory elements.

United Nations treaty monitoring committees, such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Committee Against Torture (CAT), have also stated that customs and traditions cannot be put forward as a justification for violating rights. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in June 2012 told the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival, “In all regions of the world, LGBT people suffer discrimination—at work, at home, at school, in all aspects of daily life…. No custom or tradition, no cultural values or religious beliefs, can justify depriving a human being of his or her rights.” 

But such authoritative statements have done little to dampen growing support among UN member states for resolutions that support “traditional values.” Not only did September’s HRC resolution pass easily—with 25 votes for, 15 against, and 7 abstentions—it was the latest in a series of efforts that Russia has championed in an effort to formalize an abstract set of universal moral values as a lodestar for human rights. In October 2009, for example, the HRC passed a resolution calling for the UN high commissioner for human rights to convene an expert workshop “on how a better understanding of traditional values of humankind … can contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights.” And in March 2011, the council adopted a second resolution requesting a study of how “better understanding and appreciation of traditional values” can promote and protect these rights.

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