October 17th, 2012
10:35 AM ET

‘Traditional Values’ code for human rights abuse?

By Graeme Reid, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Graeme Reid is director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.

The U.N. Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution on “traditional values of humankind” as a vehicle for “promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms.” It sounds innocuous, but its implications are ominous. Indeed, it is an immediate threat to the rights of many vulnerable groups – including women and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) people. And it flies in the face of the founding principles of universality and indivisibility enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This is the third Russian-sponsored traditional values resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council. The second, in 2011, called for a study, and the resulting draft study is highly critical of “traditional values” as a framework, criticizing the concept as “vague, subjective and unclear.” The third, though, adopted on September 27, affirms traditional values as a valid framework for human rights.

Underpinning this is an argument that homosexuality is a moral issue and not a rights issue at all. A pernicious development is the recent proliferation of laws in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that seek to curtain freedom of speech by clamping down on “homosexual propaganda” under the pretext of “protecting children.” These laws are vaguely defined and have the effect of outlawing any supportive messages or activism around LGBT issues.

Laws have, for example, been passed or are under discussion in Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Hungary and in Russia’s regions. In March, St. Petersburg became one of the nine regions in Russia to adopt such a law (upheld, albeit restricted, by the Supreme Court in October), a dangerous precedent for similar legislation to be imposed nationwide. The law explicitly conflates homosexuality with pedophilia and outlaws “creating distorted perceptions about social equality of traditional and non-traditional family relationships.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov justified these propaganda laws by arguing that the human rights of LGBT people were nothing but an outside “appendage to the universal values.”

We can see where “traditional values” is headed.

I am South African and these universal core values, which transcend differences in culture, religion and tradition, resonate strongly with my own experience living through the last decades of apartheid and the transition to democracy. For all its shortcomings, the vision for a new South Africa – the antithesis of the old – was based on the idea that we have more in common than what divides us. The apartheid state had long pointed to racial and cultural differences to justify a pernicious ideology and with democracy this was rejected with contempt.

It is appropriate that the cornerstone of our South African constitution – our “never again” pledge – is a bill of rights that enshrines protection against discrimination by state actors or fellow citizens. All the more important because to this day there are those who would restrict the rights of women and strip LGBT people of protection in the name of “tradition.” As a South African, I am deeply suspicious when traditional values are evoked as the basis for human rights – I know only too well how quickly these can be twisted for nefarious ends.

I am gay, and these core values also resonate strongly with my own experience. No one who has grown up in a precarious relationship to family or tradition will take references to traditional values as inherently and invariably good, positive and affirming. I have heard too many stories of people ostracized by their families and rejected by their communities because they are different.

Life within a family can bring affection and productive socialization, but it can also bring violence and oppression. Tradition can give a sense of meaning and connectedness with the past, to something bigger and more enduring than the individual, but it can also be a stick to beat difference, discourage dissent, to keep people in line. I know only too well how these terms are used to justify discrimination and abuse. This is what is at stake at the Human Rights Council.

Gender and sexuality have become one of the fissures within the U.N. Human Rights Council and beyond – an ongoing battle around women’s reproductive rights and the rights of LGBT people. Tradition has been used to justify forced marriage, virginity testing, so-called honor crimes, family violence and marital rape. It is also used to justify the imprisonment of gay men and rape of lesbians.

What is going on here, behind the euphemistic language of the resolution, is very clear: this is a pushback against the incremental claims of women and LGBT people. The “traditional values resolution” is the latest in a series of resolutions that edge the Human Rights Council closer to a relativist position on human rights. If we continue to go down this path then everything is potentially relative and determined by vague concepts such as culture and tradition. For those who are seen to exist outside the neatly defined parameters of culture, this is especially troubling.

There is no doubt that governments will continue to use traditional values as a way of justifying human rights abuses, particularly against the most marginal and vulnerable members of society. But it will be a sad day for the United Nations if human rights abusers are able to turn to a “traditional values” resolution to back up their spurious claims.

When it comes to human rights, universal and relative cannot coexist.

Topics: Human Rights • Russia • United Nations

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. I've

    I've flushed things down the toilet that have move "values" than a republican.

    October 17, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • fantasticiquattro

      It’s obvious that “I’ve” is a person full of hate and intolerance. How appropriate then that such a person should comment on this article.

      October 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
      • Oh really?

        It's obvious that you are a republican. And republicans hate the elderly, sick, poor, non-white, non-christian, female, unemployed, and gay people. So who's full of hate and intolerance?

        October 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Ryan

      Hatred begets hatred? That's such a horrible statement to make. You can't be incredibly intolerant and nasty and then say it's because the other side is intolerant and nasty.

      October 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
      • Paul "Look at MEEE!!! I'm working in a soup kitchen!!!" Ryan

        He's not being hateful. He's being CORRECT!

        October 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • USN Ret

      When you hear so called protectors of our freedoms proclaim Traditional Values watch your back. Lib's have their view of what’s good and Con's have their view. But the extremes on both sides scare the hell out of me "A Rep." I spent 20 years of my life defending your right to live your life in peace. I may not agree with but I will defend your right to state your opinion. I WILL DO EVERYTHING IN MY POWER TO STOP YOU FROM FORCING YOU BRLIFES ON ME. Until you have gotten off you behind and did something to protect you rights "just shut up"
      What are and what Traditional Values do we protect? The right to keep little girls the right to an education and if they do shot them or throw acid in their face, preform virginal surgery on little girls, stone my little girl because some religion says she broke some rule. Tell my son who he can or can’t marry and its ok to beat his wife if she refuses his desires. Tell me what do we protect?
      A republican who has served for you no matter what you believe in.
      Also you staement was that if a fool.

      December 4, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  2. deniz boro

    I migjt have mistekenly used enter rather than post...I wanted to warn about the distruction and plunder of declared human heritage sites in Syria. I was made to believe CNN has a high sensitivity on the issue.

    October 17, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  3. 100 % ETHIO

    Jewish are the main causes of LGBT and other Cultural-Genocidal spread around the World. Their Talmud book does permit these Satanic movements.

    In 1982, most Jewish has been infected with HIV/AIDS in Canada by Red-Cross blood transfussion.
    Since then, they were being compensated and started taking revenge against innocents around the World.

    The majority of LGBT are Jewish.

    October 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • ✠ RZ ✠

      Good grief Ethernopian ! Sounds like Africa must be overpopulated with LGBT Jews infected and dying from AIDS. Gee whiz !

      October 17, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
      • 100 % ETHIO

        Almighty God created Man and Woman. He blessed us with his grace and mercy and he allowed the marriage only, between Man and Woman. But, not the other (Jews) way of marriage.

        The rise of Jewish causes, uncertainty of evils to rise and diseases to spread.

        In Almighty GOD, we trust!!!

        October 18, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • Moorey

      you're so funny!

      October 18, 2012 at 6:41 am |
      • 100 % ETHIO

        Will u use the same words, when ur Cousin complained about J Holocaust?

        October 18, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • Warning Warning

      Warning!!!!!!!!........Warning!!!!!!!!!!.........Retard alert!!!!!!!........Retard alert!!!!!!!!!

      October 18, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  4. L.K.

    ok, people should see all angles of the stories and then decide what is right and best. however, 1)if women should be exactly equal to men, then why almost all religions and traditions support idea that man should be slightly higher?... 2)same with gays, lesbians, etc., if they should have rights or be allowed to do things they do, then why almost all religions and traditions prohibit them?... on the other hand it's also true that for some reason or other we see nowadays gays and lesbians in many or most countries, and wonder if that's the way of nature to curb overpopulation.

    October 17, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  5. ✠ RZ ✠

    The word "Human" refers to our own global race of beings, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion. "Rights", however, are without question a relevant privilege. You might have the right to free speech, but be careful, because someone else might just have the right to throw you in jail for exercising it, or even worse, have you killed.

    October 17, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    You're right Graeme, a true democracy ought to have room for everybody and minorities shouldn't be marginalised. The problem is that lawmakers everywhere rely on the goodwill of the public and will only represent major interests.

    October 18, 2012 at 4:33 am |
  7. Bill

    Anytime you hear the phrase 'traditional values' or 'family values' you can be sure that the people seeking those things actually stand for neither of them.

    October 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  8. bruce

    Russia – land of traditional values...like communism, corruption and genocide.

    October 18, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
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