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In a morning-long debate on traditional values at the Human Rights Council on Tuesday 22 March 2011, the Pakistani delegate, speaking on behalf of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was allowed by the president to overrun his allotted three minute by a further seven in order to express his outrage at an incident reported just that morning. Was it the massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Damascus? No. The killing of peaceful demonstrators in Yemen or Bahrain? No. His diatribe was against the burning of a copy of the Quran in Florida.

“Those who permitted this to happen will pay a heavy price” he warned. Yet curiously he made no mention of the 200 Bibles confiscated and burned by the Iranian authorities just last week or the imprisonment of the blogger who reported the incident. Just when we thought that dropping the resolution “combating defamation of religion” might signal the opening of a new door in relations between the Islamic States and the West, so the idea that the Quran has human rights came crashing in through the window.

The debate was on the report on a workshop on traditional values held earlier in the year in which several experts had called for sensitivity in applying human rights norms. Sensitivity, yes, but as IHEU representative Roy Brown waned, traditional values must never be allowed to undermine human rights. Here is the text of Roy’s speech in full.

UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL: Tuesday 22 March 2011

Speaker: IHEU Representative Roy W Brown

Agenda Item 8: Report of the Workshop on Traditional Values

Traditional Values and the Human Rights of Women

Thank you, Madam President.

We welcome the report of the workshop on traditional values and in particular the understanding reflected by the High Commissioner that “While there were traditions in line with human rights, others were in conflict with them”, and that the aim of the workshop was limited to consideration of the former.

We also agree with the comments made by the Executive Director of UNFPA that “cultural traditions and beliefs were often more deeply rooted than laws”, and that there are contexts where traditional beliefs pose obstacles to the elimination of violence against women and girls, female genital mutilation,  reducing maternal mortality, and to measures aimed at the prevention of HIV/AIDS.

We applaud the recognition by several panellists that human rights are implicitly underpinned and founded on the concept of human dignity. But there seemed to be little recognition that dignity in the context of traditional values is no guarantee of equality.  When “dignity” is defined by the norms of an autocratic or patriarchal culture, tradition or religion,  women may  have “dignity” in those male-dominated terms but be totally lacking in autonomy and have very few human rights.

Madam President, there can be no real dignity without autonomy, and the problem becomes particularly acute when the traditional values are enshrined in religion and in laws deemed to have divine sanction.

Religion does not and must not trump human rights, and traditional values must never be taken as justification for the denial of human rights. This Council must take a stand when religious laws or traditional values come into conflict with human rights. And claims that any system of law is divinely inspired must not be allowed to place those laws beyond examination and criticism.

Thank you madam President.

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