Once again, the Human Rights Council has been hijacked to promote the agendas of states who are trying to undermine the very same human rights the UN is supposed to protect.
A recently circulated draft resolution on “protection of the family” looks likely to be passed by the council, even though the text clearly plays into the hands of countries trying to make it legitimate to oppress individuals based on their gender or sexual orientation.
The states sponsoring and supporting this text subjugate women with national laws and fail or refuse to protect the basic rights of LGBT people, never mind offering them equality. And once again, these countries are cynically using the UN’s main human rights body to undermine international human rights.
There has long been a push to use the council to “protect the family” and to promote “traditional values”, but those efforts have been ratcheted up many notches over the past year. Despite those efforts being repeatedly exposed as cynical and pernicious attempts to undermine the rights of women and LGBT people, the current council session has already seen more steps towards this deeply political goal.
Protecting the family sounds like a perfectly benign objective; we like to think of families as safe and warm social units to be nurtured as much as possible. The problem, of course, is what counts as a family – and therefore, what exactly is being protected.
All shapes and sizes
These are not questions the backers of this resolution are keen to engage with openly. Families, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. They include heterosexual and homosexual couples with or without children, single parents, foster parents, grandparents, and endless other combinations of people.
This is a crucial and yet unanswered question in the text. Indeed, while the UN has institutional language that explains that families come in many different forms, the drafters of this resolution have refused to include those definitions in the text. The assumption they want to impose, of course, is that “the family” is a heteronormative unit of two parents and their (preferably biological) children.
One irony is that many of the states involved in drafting this resolution, despite being conservative Muslim or Christian countries or criminalising homosexuality, have many citizens who do not conform to these “traditional” notions of the family. Many of their citizens' families have complicated divisions of labour, depending on grandparents, children or non-relatives to be primary carers while parents seek work far away from “the home”.
And all of the sponsoring states are host to single parents, who would not naturally meet these conservative criteria for family.
Even if those issues were addressed between now and the draft resolution being finalised there remains another seemingly insurmountable issue: the use of the family as a site for continuing abuses and subjugation of individual members.
The sum of their parts
On the surface, protecting the family looks like a good thing for human rights. Families of all kinds can provide social and economic structures and support to protect their members, protecting and upholding their individual rights. But that, of course, is not always the case.
Many countries' laws ensure that the family perpetuates gender inequality and other human rights abuses – and even outside of those states, there are families where abuses are rife and rights are undermined by that institutional structure. UN human rights experts have long pointed to the family as a site for violence against women and children, as well as continued subjugation of vulnerable individuals.
The question is which is more important: the family, or the individuals who make it up? The family’s existence wholly depends on individuals, but the reverse is not true. The UN Human Rights Council has a mandate to protect individuals’ rights, not the rights of social institutions, but that is of course irrelevant to states that view it as a forum for promoting their own agendas – particularly when those agendas seek to undermine the whole premise of individual human rights.
Plenty of other self-serving conservative moves have gotten through the council in recent years. During the council’s early years, from 2006, it was used as forum for Muslim states who wanted to limit freedom of expression by establising a so-called right against religious defamation. In 2009, Sri Lanka managed to secure a resolution enshrining its sovereign right to deal with domestic issues without interference – even though the “domestic issue” in question involved the slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamils by Sri Lankan state forces.
More recently, attempts to protect human rights defenders have been derailed by oppressive regimes who successfully won the right to block any NGO from participating in an HRC forum for any reason.
Little wonder, then, that the council is being used as pawn to shore up an absurdly specific and highly conservative definition of the family. It remains to be seen who will stand up to this mendacious effort.
Rosa Freedman receives funding from the British Academy and from the Society of Legal Scholars
Authors: The Conversation