On March 24 2011, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution titled, Promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind in conformity with international human rights laws’. This resolution, which was proposed by Russia and supported by the OIC states and the Arab League, has been generating heated debates and criticisms mainly because of its ‘grave’ implications for universal human rights.
For instance, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights described the adoption of the resolution as ‘highly dangerous’. ‘Such a concept’, its states, ‘has been used in the Arab region to justify treating women as second class citizens, female genital mutilation, honor crimes, child marriage and other practices that clearly contradict with (sic) international human rights standards. Does this resolution now mean that such practices are acceptable under international law?" I really think it does. Some states have also voiced concerns over the resolution citing that it could lead to cultural relativism. They said it could be used to justify human rights abuses particularly the rights of minorities.
The piece takes a critical look at the resolution and its implications for human rights in Africa. Generally, Africa has a long way to go in terms of upholding the values of human rights and dignity. In fact it is in Africa that we have countries with some of the worst cases of human rights violations. People are denied their rights with impunity by states. The human rights mechanisms are weak and ineffective. They exist mainly in paper and not in practice. Human rights are enshrined in the constitution of states across the region. Most states have signed and ratified various international human rights instruments.
Most African countries have national human rights institutions and allow non-governmental human rights groups to operate. In fact, Africa has its own Charter on Human and People’s Rights. But that has made very little difference in terms of human rights protection. Many African governments are in breach of their human rights obligations. They pay lip service to their human rights commitments. And my humble submission is that this resolution on traditional values will not help the human rights situation in the region.
Instead it will worsen the situation. First of all, the term, ‘traditional values’ is ambiguous and can be given different meanings and interpretations. Those who sponsored the resolution did not clearly define the term, ‘traditional values’. They did not state how to determine ‘traditional values of dignity, freedom and responsibility’. Virtually every society lays claim to having such values. The term, traditional values, is so broad that it can contain or condone anything including practices that are not compatible with human rights.
So the resolution can be used to undermine what it actually seeks to promote and protect. With this resolution, human rights will lose their power and value. They will become traditional, not universal human, entitlements, which states could selectively uphold.Again in Africa, anything described as tradition is taken to be sacrosanct. That means it should not be tampered with even when such a tradition does not make sense any longer or is outright harmful. With this resolution, human rights and dignity could be justifiably denied on the name of tradition. For instance, in many African communities caste discrimination, women subordination, witch persecution and killings are traditional practices. And these practices are incompatible with human rights and dignity.
Also, traditions are often based on religion or supernaturalism. So they are regarded as divine or god sent articles of faith that should not be questioned, revised or abolished. Actually, there is hardly any difference between traditional values and religious values. So the resolution expressly legitimizes 'religious values' which are often in conflict with universal human rights values. Generally speaking, Africans value traditions and customs.
They are the pillars of the society or community. Traditions constitute the basis of laws, norms and policies in most countries including laws and policies that are discriminatory or oppressive. Traditions often originate in the past. They are forged based on the norms, information and mentality of people who lived centuries ago. Traditional values are often in conflict with contemporary norms. And a human rights mechanism based on traditional values will clearly be backward. It will hamper efforts to address these conflicts and contradictions.
It is important to note that in the past decades the UN has made efforts to eradicate some of these practices related to female genital mutilation, child-birth, nutrition and marriage. This resolution will really deal a heavy blow on those efforts and other initiatives to combat human rights abuses related to tradition or custom on the black continent.
The resolution legitimizes racism and xenophobia, homophobia, caste discrimination, domestic violence, child marriage, witch hunting, patriarchy, corporal punishment, the death penalty, honor crimes, ritual killing, female genital mutilation, women subordination, and other practices that violate human rights standards. Many African states are often in a dilemma as to how to combat these harmful traditional practices. Some states invoke ‘local culture or tradition’ to justify their inability to do so. Now this resolution provides them a cover and a weapon to ignore these abuses. It shields states from being held responsible and accountable.
Lastly as noted above, this resolution will mainstream cultural relativism and prejudice into human rights discourse, creating a situation where states can justify certain human rights violations on the ground that they are in accordance with their ‘own’ culture or tradition. This is particularly the case in Africa where human rights principles are often described as part of western culture, and a cultural imperialist tool that is alien to the continent. Unfortunately there have been moves, in recent years, by some states to use culture or religion to trump human rights. And the UN should, instead of encouraging such dangerous precedents through resolutions like this, persuade states to adopt the ‘tradition of universal human rights’.