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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL ADVISORY COMMITTEE DISCUSSES TRADITIONAL VALUES AND HUMAN RIGHTS
6 August 2012

The Human Rights Council Advisory Committee this afternoon took up the preliminary study on promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind.

Ahmer Bilal Soofi, Committee Expert and Chair of the Drafting Group on Traditional Values of Humankind, presented the revised study on promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind.  The preliminary study provided definitions and descriptions of key terms of traditional values, dignity, freedom and responsibility; discussed the relationship between traditional values and human rights; explored the protection and promotion of human rights through traditional values; and also contained concrete examples and good practices of traditional values and the promotion of human rights.

Committee Experts welcomed the important work done by the Drafting Group on providing a definition of key terms of traditional values, dignity and freedom and debated the issue of responsibilities and who it should include.  Experts suggested that this section of the preliminary study be expanded to also include the crucial role of the family and community, and of private citizens who were not only rights holders but also had duties and responsibilities.  The negative impact of traditional values needed to be mentioned, at least in one paragraph explaining why it was important to better understand them.  An Expert noted that the Committee must answer the crucial question asked by the Human Rights Council on whether traditional values could facilitate the observance of human rights and freedoms and what could be done if traditional values came in conflict with human rights.

A speaker noted that traditional values and harmful traditional practices should not be confused; even though they overlapped in many instances, they were different.  Another speaker said that traditional values meant different things to different people and there were legitimate concerns about the ways that States had invoked traditional values as a defense against the application of human rights law.  Several speakers welcomed the balanced approach of the study in examining both positive and negative impacts of traditional values on human rights and expressed concern that the lack of an internationally agreed definition of traditional values opened the door to using the term to legitimize human rights violations.

The following Experts of the Advisory Committee took the floor: Wolfgang Stefan Heinz, Obiora Chinedu Okafor, Dheerujlall Seetulsingh, Halima Embarek Warzazi, Coco Quisumbing, Shigeki Sakamoto, Ahmer Bilal Soofi, Laurence Boisson de Chazournes, Mona Zulficar, Vladimir Kartashkin, Alfred Ntunduguru Karokora, José Antonio Bengoa Cabello, Latif Hüseynov and Shiqiu Chen.

Russia, European Union, Switzerland, United States and Chile also took the floor, as did the following non-governmental organizations: International Service of Human Rights, Action Canada for Population and Development, Human Rights First, ILGA Europe and Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

The next meeting of the Advisory Committee will be held on Tuesday, 7 August at 10 a.m., when it is scheduled to discuss human rights and issues related to terrorist hostage-taking.

Requests Stemming from Human Rights Council Resolutions

Preliminary study on promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind (A/HRC/AC/9/2)

AHMERE BILAL SOOFI, Chair of the Drafting Group on Traditional Values of Humankind, presented the revised study on promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind.  The first part of the study was an introduction; the second part provided definitions and descriptions of traditional values, dignity, freedom and responsibility; the third part discussed relationship between traditional values and human rights; and the final part of the study was centered on the protection and promotion of human rights through traditional values.  The Group had taken into account comments by colleagues who had provided feedback and comments and now contained specific and concrete examples of the traditional values and good practices.  The preliminary study also contained conclusions and recommendations, including the need to accord respect to cultural and traditional values which were consistent with human rights.  This was also a means to prevent conflicts and demonstrate the universality of human rights.

VLADIMIR KARTASHKIN, Rapporteur of the Drafting Group, said that the Human Rights Council had instructed the Advisory Committee to draft a study on how a deeper understanding of traditional values could promote human rights.  At the last session, the Advisory Committee had discussed the preliminary study and many comments and proposals had been made on implementing the resolution of the Council.  The research in its current form contained many facts and documents adopted by the United Nations and regional organizations.  There was much wording on traditional values in the study, including both their positive and negative impacts on human rights.  The conclusion was drawn to the fact that some traditions were in line with human rights standards, while others were not.  Mr. Kartashkin suggested that the Advisory Committee request prolongation of this study for another year.

CHUNG CHINSUNG, Rapporteur of the Drafting Group, informed the Committee about the efforts to provide definitions of traditional values, dignity, freedom and responsibility in the preliminary study.  There was no agreed definition of traditional values of humankind, but some wording included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be considered as having sufficient agreement.  The text of the Universal Declaration could also provide acceptable definitions of dignity and freedom.  Freedom was further defined by standards of international law.  Responsibility was defined by the international law and imposed on States the duty to protect human rights, also from violations by private actors.  Explaining human rights principles that resonated in diverse cultures might assist in promoting human rights.  Many of the Special Procedures and treaty bodies noted that it was important to ensure that traditional values were not elevated above human rights and that the laws were in conformity with international human rights standards. 

WOLFGANG STEFAN HEINZ, Committee Expert, said that the paper was relevant, clearly structured and provided a basis for discussion.  Mr. Heinz said he was in agreement with many sections of the paper and agreed that the section on responsibilities might request further consultations.  He proposed that the Drafting Group explain the point in the study concerning traditional values which propagated harmful practices in Western countries and suggested the inclusion of positive examples from Western countries.

OBIORA CHINEDU OKAFOR, Committee Expert, said that the Drafting Group would have to respond to the point made concerning proportionality.  It might be helpful to expand the notion of freedom beyond the political and civil aspects and include freedom from want and freedom from fear.  The study presented a good starting point but more work was needed.  Section C in the study could be expanded and further details could be added.

DHEERUJLALL SEETULSING, Committee Expert, said that the issue of responsibility had been played down in the preliminary study and that this duty was accorded only to States.  It needed to be acknowledged that citizens too were duty bearers and not only right holders; citizens needed to respect rules and norms, for example to respect the elderly, to preserve the environment or respect the rights of persons with disabilities.  Children needed to be taught not only their rights, but also their duties and responsibilities, as they went hand in hand and were part of citizens’ education.  The latest version of the study accorded significant importance to gender, which was the right approach because practices such as female genital mutilation or early marriages should not be considered as traditional values.  The Committee should be careful to make the distinction between traditions and traditional values, which were not one and the same.  In this context, Mr. Seetulsing mentioned the death penalty, abortion, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, drug use and sex workers.  In conclusion, he noted that the study needed some polishing and would be ready for the submission to the Human Rights Council in its September session.

HALIMA EMBAREK WARZAZI, Committee Expert, noted that violence against women also affected the Western countries and there were some studies indicating that 60 per cent of women in some of those countries were victims of violence.  The Committee must be impartial and recognize that perfection was not of this world.  Human rights violations did not occur only in non-Western countries.  The text of the preliminary study needed to include the text adopted by the Vienna Declaration that recognized those traditional values that did not adversely affect human rights. 

COCO QUISUMBING, Committee Expert, welcomed the important work done on the definition of traditional values and noted that the language used could also be stronger.  It seemed that the study was covering both universal and national traditional values which posed methodological challenges.  Should the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination be mentioned in the context of equality and dignity?  Ms. Quisumbing suggested that more practical examples be added throughout the study to better make the point, which would turn the study itself into a valuable teaching tool.  Further, the crucial role of the family, community and those in parental roles could be further developed in the responsibility section of the study, particularly in the context of raising and educating children.  The negative impact of traditional values needed to be mentioned, at least in one paragraph explaining why it was important to better understand them. 

SHIGEKI SAKAMOTO, Committee Expert, noted that the discussions within the Advisory Committee revealed the need for consideration of both positive and negative impacts of traditional values on the promotion and protection of human rights.  The study noted that there was no agreed definition of the term traditional values of humankind and that certain traditions supported the enjoyment of human rights, while others violated them.

AHMER BILAL SOOFI, Committee Expert, welcomed the suggestions by the Experts on issues that the study could address and cautioned that the Committee needed to exercise restraint in order to respect the limits of the mandated framework in preparing the study.  The responsibilities had been addressed throughout the study which emphasized the crucial role of States as primary duty bearers under international law, but also stretched further to include the responsibility of non-State actors and individuals.

LAURENCE BOISSON DE CHAZOURNES, Committee Expert, noted the interesting interfaces between human rights and traditional values that were obvious in the study and said that human rights were also a very important instrument to promote values, for example the value of solidarity.  States had a leading role in responsibility in the international human rights discourse, while the case law in human rights revealed that individuals too had responsibilities in upholding human rights.

COCO QUISUMBING, Committee Expert, said that the Human Rights Council resolution 16/3 did not limit the study to either women or minority groups; lacking any stated justification for why only those two groups had been included in the study, why were all vulnerable groups not included too?

MONA ZULFICAR, Committee Expert, said that there was an ongoing stress surrounding the debate which was reminiscent of tensions surrounding the Vienna Conference.  There was a fear of cultures and traditions posing a threat to the universality of human rights. 

VLADIMIR KARTASHKIN, Committee Expert, said that the crucial questions to be answered were whether traditional values could facilitate observance of human rights and freedoms and what could be done if traditional values came in conflict with human rights.  The Advisory Committee was a think tank of the Human Rights Council and as such had the duty to provide the Council with its views on the issue.

ALFRED NTUNDUGURU KAROKORA, Committee Expert, asked what the traditional values of humankind were and whether they could be defined.

MONA ZULFICAR, Committee Expert, suggested that, in light of all comments, the Drafting Group should revisit the conclusions and recommendations and revise them with the view of making them more operational.  Ms. Zulficar disagreed with the request for an extension for the submission of the study.

HALIMA EMBAREK WARZAZI, Committee Expert, suggested that different proposals made during the discussion be collected in order to facilitate decision-making by the Committee.

JOSÉ ANTONIO BENGOA CABELLO, Committee Expert, agreed that often references to traditional values were made to weaken human rights.  The study confirmed the universality of human rights and should stress cultural diversity and identity.  The study needed to reaffirm its respect for the universality of human rights and for the diversity of cultures.

Russia said that the Human Rights Council hoped to receive experts’ opinions and points of view and noted that traditional values and harmful traditional practices should not be confused; even though they overlapped in many instances, they were different.  Russia was surprised by the lack of reference in the study to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other important international instruments in which responsibilities were defined.  Russia suggested that the section on good practices be further expanded and benefit from the comments and suggestions heard today.  International Service of Human Rights, in a joint statement, said that traditional values meant different things to different people and there were legitimate concerns about the ways that States had invoked traditional values as a defense against the application of human rights law.  It was highly controversial to import the notion of individual responsibility into human rights; individual responsibility mainly came into play in respect of the conduct of individuals acting in their capacity as agents of States or entities.

European Union noted that some traditional values supported the enjoyment of human rights while others were harmful.  The European Union reiterated its concern about the potential misuse of traditional values by invoking cultural relativism by some States.  Human rights needed to be explained in ways that resonated positively in various traditions and cultures.  Switzerland noted that the revised study which now also demonstrated the negative impact of traditional values on human rights provided a more balanced approach.  The 1994 Vienna Declaration recognised regional differences but also reaffirmed the universal nature of human rights and the primary duty of States in their protection and promotion.  Action Canada for Population and Development, in a joint statement, said that traditional values when not in the best interest of individuals could lead to the violation of the rights of individuals and vulnerable groups.  Negative traditional values should not be accepted on the arguments of cultural diversity. 

United States said that the term traditional values did not have an internationally agreed definition and was concerned that this term could be used to legitimize human rights violations and abuses.  The United States reaffirmed the primary responsibility of States to uphold human rights.  Human Rights First recognised the varied opinions of traditional values and said that it was crucial that the study recognized the universality and indivisibility of human rights.  The prime responsibility to protect human rights was with States and this principle was non-negotiable.  Chile said that cultures, traditions and expressions made up the diversity of the modern world and needed to be recognized as such.  Even though an internationally agreed definition of traditional values was lacking, the world was building a set of common values. 

ILGA Europe agreed that the analysis that took both the positive and negative impact of traditional values on human rights was the right approach.  The Advisory Committee should reframe the discussion on traditional values which until now were cast in a very positive light, which was not justified given their use to legitimize human rights violations.  Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network shared the concern of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that those marginalized had the most to lose from invoking of traditional values to legalize human rights abuse and violations. 

CHUNG CHINSUNG, Rapporteur of the Drafting Group, summarized the discussion and said that the most important issue raised was that of responsibility, including the responsibility of family, parents and individuals.  The Drafting Group would discuss the proposed expansion of the definition of freedom, the revision of the conclusion and recommendations sections and the need to differentiate between traditions and traditional values.  The commitment demonstrated by participants in the discussion indicated that the report might be completed during this session.

LATIF HUSEYNOV, Committee Chairperson, said that the Advisory Committee should be able to finalize the study at this session and submit it subsequently to the Human Rights Council.  The Chair encouraged the members of the Drafting Group to come together and discuss the proposals.

SHIQIU CHEN, Committee Expert, noted that the present understanding of traditional values was not good enough and that was why the study should include a section on how to better understand and appreciate them.


For use of the information media; not an official record

AC12/010E