“Cultural practices and religious specificities” at the Human Rights Council

  • blog Type / Advocacy blog
  • Date / 7 July 2015
  • By / Elizabeth O'Casey

The IHEU’s head of delegation to Geneva, Elizabeth O’Casey, blogs on her reflections after the closing of the June 2015 session of the Human Rights Council.

The 29th session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council ended on Friday and a monotonous refrain remains in my mind from it: the central importance of “cultural particularities and religious specificities.” I’m not even quite sure what it means (“religious specificities”?), but this apparently pre-prepared and suitably vague line was uttered again and again by the same few states and used tediously to claim all manner of exceptions to the universality of Human Rights.

The phrase seems to capture the trend made so apparent at this recent session and one I have reported on from previous sessions. That is, a steady current of anti-universalism running through a number of Council members’ advocacy at the UN. For ‘anti-universalism’ read anti-human rights; because if human rights don’t apply universally to all humans they cease to be human rights. They are instead just the ‘rights of a few’ – usually straight men. I say this because the victims of these anti-universalist arguments are, as they were at this session, most often women and LGBT people. Incidentally, that covers quite a number of human beings.

During a discussion on a resolution on “Accelerating Efforts to Eliminate all Forms of Violence Against Women: Eliminating Domestic Violence,” Pakistan, on behalf of itself, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Bangladesh, Libya and the Gulf Cooperation Council States, said that it was “deeply concerned” that the resolution contained “controversial concepts” that “do not take into account cultural particularities and religious specificities of member states.” So, what were these concepts?

Wait for it.

‘Marital rape’ and ‘intimate partner violence’.

Apparently, “reference to ‘intimate partner violence’ is beyond the scope of domestic violence, which occurs within the family comprising of men and women.” Instead, they suggested replacing ‘marital rape’ and ‘intimate partner violence’ with “spousal and non-spousal violence.” During a rare moment of logical clarity in the debate, the US Ambassador pointed out that such a definition of violence covers everyone in the world, thereby diluting the statement so much it was left without meaning.

In the end, Pakistan & co.’s hostile amendments were not passed and the resolution was adopted un-amended. Yet, “cultural particularities” and “religious specificities” were raised again as a pretence for why human rights are not universal insofar as they do not apply to LGBT people. In response to a truly fine report by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights on “discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity” the same states argued that human rights cannot apply to all regardless of sexual orientation. In a laughable moment the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation representative declared they don’t even recognise this “so-called notion of sexual orientation.”

Saudi Arabia accused the High Commissioner’s report of having no respect for the right of others to live their lives in “accordance with their own cultural practices and religious specificities” (there’s that phrase, again). The Saudi Ambassador said, “we do not support this thing of homosexuality,” stating their support for human rights instruments only in accordance with the Islamic Sharia. Likewise, Qatar, on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council, argued that LGBT practices go against Sharia Law (we responded to these claims in a statement to the Council). These states forget that the right to manifest one’s religion or belief is limited and nowhere does it give you a right to deny the rights and equality of others.

The Nigerian Ambassador was particularly vocal in his opposition to the High Commissioner’s report, describing Nigeria’s “abhorrence of LGBT rights.” He noted that Nigeria rejects unreservedly same-sex marriage, lesbians and gays in its population and that Nigeria has a “duty to protect family values, religious and cultural values which are the bedrock of society” (emphasis added).

And there it is, the merry union of ‘religious’ and ‘cultural’ values and the ‘family’; all bound together so as to undermine the rights of gay people and women (as I argued in a statement to the Council). Indeed, the same rejection of LGBT rights underpinned the renewed “Protection of the Family” resolution this session. A year ago, the first resolution on protecting the family was passed – I wrote about it at the time. During this session, it was a similar affair, with the same sort of amendments proposed – including suggestions that there are multiple types of families, and that individual family members should be protected.

The former was proposed by Brazil, South Africa, Uruguay; they wanted the resolution to recognize “that, in different cultural, political and social systems, various forms of the family exist.” Hardly controversial you’d say. But not so, according to the sponsors. Just as last year, shamefully Russia called for a “no action” motion on it, which meant the amendment couldn’t even be voted upon. So, in the end, the resolution, with no recognition of LGBT/diverse families or women’s equality, was passed by 29 votes to 14.

More encouragingly on LGBT rights this session, was the fact that a statement by the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) calling on the Human Rights Council to act urgently to end the violence and discrimination suffered by LGBT people around the world was signed by 417 NGOs from 105 countries. It was warming to see such support from civil society; but it also makes only more apparent the increasing chasm between a substantial bloc of regressive Council members and the progressive values of civil society – the very people Council members are supposed to represent.

There were however some other positives to have come out of the session; for example, a good resolution on eliminating discrimination against women and one on preventing and eliminating child, early, and forced marriage (with over 80 co-sponsors) were both adopted without a vote.

And indeed, it was upon a positive note that the session started, and upon which I shall end. In his opening statement, the High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, made a poignant and unprecedented point about the shaming of countries at the Human Rights Council for poor human rights’ records. He talked of the “greatest factory of shame” being the “blanket denial of human rights,” placing the blame of shame squarely on the shoulders of those states who abuse the human rights of all. It was encouraging to hear such an uncompromising account of the responsibilities of states and the independent role of the Council in holding them to account.

So I end by pasting his quote in full here, because it’s honest and beautifully said….

“I am often told in this chamber, in our debates, that I should not be “naming and shaming” member states. Somehow the naming is, or has become, the very shame itself. This is a disfigurement of the truth, which we must now reset. The shame comes not from the naming: it comes from the actions themselves, the conduct or violations, alleged with supporting evidence or proven. The greatest factory of shame is the blanket denial of human rights. The denial of the right to life shames unreservedly. Killing on a massive scale, shames stunningly, and inexhaustibly. The denial of the right to development also shames. The denial of human dignity shames. Torture shames. Arbitrary arrests shame. Rape shames. We name; the shame of States, where it exists, has already been self-inflicted. The loss of face for the affected countries has come well before OHCHR raises its independent voice.”


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