Home » The Universalization of Traditional Values: a New Form of Illiberal Norm Protagonism in the Human Rights Sphere?

The Universalization of Traditional Values: a New Form of Illiberal Norm Protagonism in the Human Rights Sphere?

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by Kristina Stoeckl (Professor of Sociology, University of Innsbruck. Coordinator of Postsecular Conflicts Research Project) and Kseniya Medvedeva (Researcher in the Postsecular Conflicts Project)

From: Stoeckl, Kristina, and Kseniya Medvedeva. 2018. “Double bind at the UN: Western actors, Russia, and the traditionalist agenda.” Global Constitutionalism 7 (3): 383-421. https://doi.org/10.1017/S2045381718000163.

Ever since its foundation, the workings of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and of its successor, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), have been characterized by a struggle between actors who have, on the one hand, promoted the implementation of transversally valid, universal human rights standards, and on the other, actors who have argued that human rights have to be realized – and thus relativized – according to specific religious, cultural, and political contexts on the other. Despite the fact that contextualist arguments are rooted in an intra-Western debate, the human rights skeptical view is mostly associated with African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries (the ‘Global South’), whereas universalist positions are prima facie associated with Western liberal democratic countries. The universalist-contextualist debate arguably renewed intensity in 2009, when the UNHRC launched discussions of a set of resolutions on the topic of ‘traditional values’. The leader of this discussion was the Russian Federation and the initiative gathered majority support among non-Western countries. The Russia-led traditionalist agenda could be interpreted as yet another chapter of contextualist opposition to the universalist application of human rights and as a successor to the cultural relativism in human rights promoted in the past by the Organization of Islamic States or countries from the Global South. Nevertheless, what we seek to demonstrate here is that the Russia-led traditionalist agenda employs novel aspects of illiberal norm protagonism in the human rights sphere. 

Conservative mobilization against topics of sexual orientation and gender identity in the human rights context goes back to 1994, when the Vatican, together with religious and non-denominational conservative NGOs and Islamic States, raised arguments about the “natural” and “traditional family” at the Cairo Conference on Population and Development. Together with the 1995 UN Conference in Beijing, these two large UN Conferences are considered by scholars as the starting point for global activism by a Christian Right network. Coming closer to more recent steps of this mobilization, the ‘Traditional values’ resolution promoted by the Russian Federation in the UNHRC has its origin in the Russian Orthodox Church’s interpretation of Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2006, then-Metropolitan and head of the External Relations Department of the Moscow Patriarchate (and now the current Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church) Kirill cited the Universal Declaration – which in Article 29 speaks of “just requirement of morality … in a democratic society” – and twisted its meaning speaking instead of “traditional morality.” In doing so, he sealed public morality off from change through democratic deliberation, preferring instead past practice and traditional mores as sources of legitimacy. Moreover, he read Article 29 as legitimization of the argument that contextual parameters constitute guiding norms for the interpretation of human rights. This re-grounding of contextualist arguments in human rights instruments themselves has arguably set in motion a new dynamic in the universalist-contextualist debate. In short, we are witnessing a process of “universalization” of the contextualist viewpoint, which, besides, leads to an interpretation of human rights not in an individual but in a social and public light. This traditionalist agenda before the UNHRC has mobilised a stable coalition of supporters from among non-Western UN member states – Russia and post-Soviet states, countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and countries in what is broadly referred to as the “Global South” – and has been met with opposition from Western countries and UN agencies. At the same time, it has acquired considerable support from conservative, mostly Christian civil society actors in the West.  

Between 2009 and 2013 and between 2014 and 2017, two traditionalist causes were debated at the UNHRC, the first being the aforementioned resolution on “Traditional values,” the second the resolution on “Protection of the family.” In the research conducted for the Postsecular Conflict project we analysed 195 documents: in order to exemplify the discourse coalitions of both supporters and opponents of the traditionalist agenda we will briefly recall here two of the most significant resolutions examined. One should also bear in mind that the traditionalist coalition has prevailed in all of the UNHRC resolutions examined, and the liberal egalitarian human rights position of Western states has been turned into a minority opinion. Resolution 12/21 – the first in the history of the Russia-led conservative mobilization – was presented by the representative of the Russian Federation to the Human Rights Council, Valery Loshchinin, and it requested “to convene, in 2010, a workshop for an exchange of views 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 and fundamental freedoms.” This resolution was adopted against the votes of the Western countries and the requested workshop took place at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. In his speech during the workshop, Igumen Filip Ryabykh, representative of the Moscow Patriarchate in Strasbourg, spoke of the need to counteract efforts to promote a “new generation of human rights” such as “the right to sexual orientation, euthanasia, abortion, experimentation with human nature.” In 2014, the Council was asked to vote on Resolution 26/11, entitled “Protection of the family” and presented by a group of countries including Egypt and Russia. The resolution set forth a general aim to “strengthen family-centered policies and programs as part of an integrated, comprehensive approach to human rights.” In the Resolution, it was stated that “the family has the primary responsibility for the nurturing and protection of children,” and that family is “the fundamental group unit of society and entitled to protection by society and the State.” A group of countries that included the US and Western European states tabled an amendment emphasising that “in different cultural, political, and social systems, various forms of the family exist.” Resolution 26/11 was eventually adopted by a recorded vote of 26 to 14, with 6 abstentions. 

Two aspects of the recent debate suggest that in the traditionalist-liberal standoff in the UNHRC between 2009 and 2016 there are novel aspects to be considered. First, it appears that Russia’s leadership role in the promotion of a traditionalist agenda in the UNHRC has opened a new phase in anti-liberal norm protagonism at the UN. Secondly, by making an appeal to transversal phenomena like “traditional values” or “family” and by expanding from the demands of one religion (Islam in the case of the blasphemy debates) to religions and cultures as such, the traditionalist agenda has become transversal and has mobilised support in countries whose government representatives at the UNHRC oppose the agenda. Add to this the fact that country voting results show only one side of the unfolding controversy at the UNHRC. The other side is the engagement of NGOs accredited to the UN, which submitted statements in support or opposition to the traditionalist agenda. The mobilization pattern of pro-traditionalist NGOs in Southern and Eastern Europe, the United States, and Latin America, about which WikiLeaks has recently released the dossier “The Intolerance Network,” shows widespread support for the items on the traditionalist agenda upon which country representatives took a contrary or neutral stance. The geographical pattern of this traditionalist mobilization in Europe shows that a greater number of favourable statements came from Orthodox and Catholic countries than from Protestant countries. If the literature on norm protagonism in civil society anticipates liberal civil society mobilization as a counter-balance to authoritarian, conservative, or non-liberal governments, the traditionalist agenda reverses this trend in two ways. First, it enacts a non-liberal norm protagonism rarely considered in the literature so far, and second, it mobilises and gives coherence to a traditionalist section of civil society inside liberal democratic countries. 

The resolutions on “Traditional values” and “Protection of the family” made apparent a split between the positions of Western European countries and stakeholders, which the EU, with its statement on behalf of all, could not really gloss over. And nevertheless, if, on the one hand, the Russian traditional values initiative between 2009 and 2013 tried to present itself as having a universalist agenda, this self-presentation was not well received by the Advisory Committee of the UNHRC, which in 2012 associated traditional values with debates on rights of indigenous people. Moreover, in 2013 the EU submitted a statement that expressed in a paradigmatic way the standoff between universalist and contextualist positions, as seen from their standpoint: “Traditional values are inherently subjective and specific to a certain time and place. Human Rights are universal and inalienable.” To sum up, by analysing the aforementioned UN documents and coding them in a bottom-up fashion, one gathers that the opposition to the traditionalist agenda from Western liberal democratic states hinges on disagreement over substantive and normative definitions and over the correct interpretation of human rights norms. On functional terms, both liberal Western countries and traditionalist actors are in principle in agreement that families play an important role in society and should receive support from the state. 

“I want everything they want, but I disagree a hundred percent about their strategy.” This sentence comes from one of the interviews we conducted and refers to a stance that we can only briefly mention/evoke here, and that, nevertheless, showcases a relevant consequence of the battles over traditional values at the UN. We are speaking about a number of actors, who find the traditionalist agenda important and in part persuasive, but do not agree with its strategy nor want to side unconditionally with the states that promote it. The topics of “Traditional values” and “Protection of the family” have polarized debates in the UNHRC in a way that has put this specific group of actors into a situation of an argumentative double bind. Some religious NGOs from Western countries overlap with the traditionalist agenda on functional grounds, but disagree on strategy and political implications. To summarize: the political motivation behind the traditionalist agenda promoted by Russia since 2009 appears to be polarization, not advancement on topics of common concern, and for this reason it is likely that tensions over human rights will increase.

Confronti Editorial Staff

Confronti Editorial Staff

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