13/09/2013 10:54 BST | Updated 12/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Think Twice Before Ordering a Slice of Traditional Values

The UN Human Rights Council is currently meeting in Geneva and traditional values are on the menu.

Delegations gathered on Friday (13 September) to hear responses to a report for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights about the relationship between traditional values and the protection of human rights.

A series of exchanges about tradition might appear harmless, but don't be fooled. This is the latest battleground in the ideological war being fought for the heart and soul of international human rights.

Russia is sure to have observed proceedings closely. Over the past 4 years, it has led a concerted effort to push the traditional values agenda within the UN's principle human rights body.

Traditional values have no place in the international human rights framework. They mask an insidious agenda to obscure and legitimise discrimination. The international community must not allow momentum to build that will further entrench this dangerous narrative, which threatens to erode international human rights protection.

Worryingly however, since 2009 the Human Rights Council have adopted three separate resolutions recognising traditional values as a vehicle to advance human rights.

No one will dispute that traditional cultural practices around the world have and indeed can aid efforts to extend, encourage better respect for, and realise human rights. But this is not a given.

There is no agreed definition of what is meant by or what constitutes traditional values, nor could there be. It is a broad and ambiguous concept, contested within and between communities and relative to time and place. Requiring that human rights appreciate traditional values is to make those standards subservient to a nebulous notion, which can be manipulated and distorted to legitimise discrimination and severe human rights abuses.

Traditional values have routinely been used as a smokescreen to sanction assaults on the LGBTI communities across the world. A ban on propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships in Russia earlier this year is just one clear example from among many. Providing public health or educational information to anyone under the age of eighteen, including on vital issues such as HIV treatment and prevention, could now result in heavy fines. Supporters of the ban argue its need to protect traditional values. The ban has sparked an international campaign urging for the boycott of next year's Sochi Winter Olympics, in no small part helped by high profile supporters, including in Britain by Stephen Fry and Rupert Everett. Sadly, far less attention has been given to similarly discriminatory legislation adopted in Moldova and Nigeria, and proposed in Ukraine and Uganda. Traditional values form the narrative used in those places to justify these regressive laws.

LGBTI communities are not alone. Traditional values have long been used against women to deny them property rights, access to education and political participation. Tradition has been repeatedly invoked to explain and defend violence against women, forced marriage, virginity testing and female genital mutilation. Women have and are frequently denied a voice in deciding what 'traditions' are worth keeping, and which should be eliminated. Against this backdrop, activists continue to challenge narratives about tradition as new fronts open up in the fight for women's rights, including in Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The traditional values agenda directly contradicts the mandate of the UN Human Rights council to promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights for all people, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner.

Equality is the very essence of international human rights, embedded in every human rights treaty. Traditional values distort this notion through creating and endorsing hierarchies among people. Human rights are for all people, everywhere.

The Russian Federation has indicated that it intends to pursue the traditional values agenda at a future session of the UN Human Rights Council. Given Russia seeks election to the body next year, much work lies ahead to convince states of the harmful consequences of this agenda, to urge them to oppose it, and to encourage them to restate the universality of human rights.

When the international community consider the menu before them in Geneva, they must remember that ordering a slice of tradition means putting human rights on the side.