Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Russian Values

The UN Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution, introduced by the Russian Federation, titled Promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind: best practices. The resolution tasks the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with gathering information on
'best practices in the application of traditional values while promoting and protecting human rights and upholding human dignity.'
It was adopted on 27 September 2012, by a vote of 25 aye and 15 nay, with 7 abstentions.
This is the third such resolution introduced by Russia in as many years.
The first, Resolution 12/21, adopted in October 2009, called for the High Commissioner to convene an expert workshop
'on how a better understanding of traditional values of humankind underpinning international human rights norms and standards can contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights.'
The second, Resolution 16/3, adopted in March 2011, requested the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council to prepare a study on the same topic.
Although the traditional values resolution has come to a vote each time, it has always been adopted by a comfortable margin.
Traditional values have, of course, been used to justify a range of human rights violations, from primogeniture to forced and early marriage to servitude and slavery.
As is evident in the Report on the Congo of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women on intersections between culture and violence, UN human rights experts make repeated reference to persistent patterns of discrimination and inequality that flow from traditional values and practices.
In a 2010 report on Russia, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said:
'[T]he Committee is concerned at the State party’s repeated emphasis on the role of women as mothers and caregivers. The Committee is concerned that such customs and practices perpetuate discrimination against women and girls; that this is reflected in their disadvantageous and unequal status in many areas, including in education, public life, decision-making, marriage and family relations, and the persistence of harmful traditional practices, honour killings, bridal kidnappings and violence against women; and that, thus far, the State party has not taken effective and systematic action to modify or eliminate stereotypes and negative traditional values and practices.'
Since some states, including the United States and those within the European Union, have repeatedly condemned attempts to subvert the universality of human rights with the language of relativism (see webcast available here), and since civil society mounted a fairly concerted effort against the traditional values resolution (see statements here), what explains Russia’s repeated success respecting traditional values?
► One factor, no doubt, is the fluidity of the term.
“Traditional values” was and remains undefined. Russia has never attempted to offer an explanation of “traditional values” at any of the informal negotiating sessions held on the resolution drafts and the texts themselves are deliberately opaque.
Resolution 12/21, for example, states that
'all cultures and civilizations in their traditions, customs, religions and beliefs share a common set of values that belong to humankind in its entirety.'
Resolution 16/3 states that
'dignity, freedom and responsibility are traditional values, shared by the entire humanity and embodied in universal rights instruments.'
Traditional values could refer to almost anything, as long as it’s traditional.
► Another factor is that each resolution appears relatively innocuous.
The resolutions include careful language reaffirming the primacy of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. They purport to do no more than call for additional studies and research by other organs of the UN human rights system.
► Third, despite the infamous Pussy Riot trial (see prior IntLawGrrls posts here and here), diplomats sitting in Geneva may be unaware of the extent to which the traditional values agenda, actively promoted by Patriarch Kirill of the Orthodox Church (left) and exploited by the current government, has been used to silence dissenting and minority voices in Russia.

Pussy Riot’s punk prayer in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Church was portrayed by the Patriarch as an attack on traditional Russian values. Laws banning the “promotion of homosexuality among minors” have been enacted in eight regions of Russia, and are being debated in other regions as well as at the federal level. The St. Petersburg law, for example, defines the “promotion of homosexuality” as promoting the “false perception” that “traditional and non-traditional relationships are socially equal.” (See my earlier post and this post by Moscow-based writer Masha Gessen.)
On a similar note, this past February, a district court in Krasnodar, in southern Russia, upheld a decision of the Ministry of Justice that had denied registration to Sochi Pride House, an LGBT organization. The court stated that Pride House activities would lead to the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation which can undermine the security of the Russian society and the state, [and] provoke social-religious hatred,” which, according to the court, was a feature of extremism. 
In short, on the domestic front the traditional values agenda has led to significant restrictions on political and artistic expression, gender equality, and LGBT human rights, as has been well documented by a Russian LGBT Network report and by Human Rights First (here and here).
Now Russia has exported traditional values to the international stage.
In this sense, the “work” accomplished by the traditional values resolutions actually has very little to do with their operative paragraphs. They are important not so much for their content as for the simple fact that they exist. Their not-so-coded message is that values are good only insofar as they are traditional and that human rights are measured by tradition, rather than the other way around.
The next stop may well be the UN General Assembly, where the draft resolution on violence against women includes language stressing that States must “refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid” the obligation to eliminate all forms of violence against women. The draft resolution calls upon States to “modify social and cultural patterns of conduct” to achieve the elimination of “prejudices and customary and all other practices” that lead to stereotyped roles for men and women.
The battle lines have been drawn.

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