Tag Archives: Human Rights

Déjà vu?


“Irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict”, this is the aim of Global Summit To End Sexual Violence In Conflict being held in London. The event is chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie in her capacity as the UN’s special envoy for the UNHCR. Great.

I can’t help but feel a bit cynical about this event though. One could argue that the United Nations Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda has tried to do just that. And there are plenty of resolution to prove it – 6 on top of landmark Resolution 1325. Do we just need to be seen to keep the momentum going while nothing of substance, mind blowing, decisive actually happens? Haven’t we been here already? I have an old feeling of déjà vu.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully on board with these events, and some change is happening. I am however tired of the rhetoric and the parallel lack of meaningful change. I am tired of oxymorons such as the ‘positive discrimination’ provisions to ‘help’ women (watch out for my upcoming piece on this). I am tired of the statistics. I am tired of living in a world where one has to make a business case to argue that women should be treated like human beings in the workplace.  I am just tired.

What do I mean by meaningful change? Well, I mean a real change towards gender justice. But few really understand what that means, which is why we keep going around in circles. It is not about paternalistic approaches to ‘help’ women. It is about choice. For women and men.

The United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security agenda has been hailed as a major breakthrough in focusing much needed international attention on violence against women and gender inequalities in situations of armed conflict. A product of the Security Council after much lobbying by women’s and civil society organisations, the stakes and expectations were very high. Sexual and gender-based violence had become endemic and the scale of atrocities reached horrifying levels during the conflicts of the 1990s. Protection of Civilians had earlier began to feature as a new thematic focus for the Security Council’s program of work, but was insufficient as a gender sensitive mechanism to attract the attention and necessary level of political will to push the issue forward.

Sexual and gender-based violence is, sadly, common in most, if not all, conflict situations in which the social fabric has broken down, there is little to no effective governance and social protections, security and law and order are absent and/or militarised, and where armed groups seek to control or terrorise populations to gain a military advantage[1]. Most importantly, sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict of the scale we are confronted with today is symptomatic of societies in which gender inequalities and traditional, men-dominated conceptions of women and men’s roles prevail. The perpetrators also vary widely as has been found in DRC where civilians themselves have committed sexual violence crimes. Often the levels of domestic violence also increase dramatically in times of conflict. From Liberia to Colombia, Mali, Afghanistan or Sierra Leone[2], sexual and gender-based violence, committed against women and girls, but also against men and boys, is frequent.

Rape and sexual violence, especially when perpetrated to pursue military, political or social objectives constitute a violation of International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law and Criminal Law. Sexual and gender-based violence is a form of discrimination, a crime against humanity, a war crime and a constitutive act in regard to the crimes of genocide and torture. States are obligated to refrain from violating human rights under these international legal mechanisms, and to ensure that the necessary steps are adopted to prevent incidences of sexual and gender-based violence, protect all civilians in situations of armed conflict, provide access to justice and eliminate impunity by ensuring the prosecution of these acts. The Women, Peace and Security agenda has had some impact on international law by reinforcing the existing legal frameworks and by adding to the list of soft law mechanisms that can contribute to the development of international customary law. It has also contributed to the debate about the legislative role and power of the Security Council.

But the law can do little to change stereotypes and long-held assumptions about the roles of women and men in society, especially when it is not supported by policy and practice. The UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda began by seeking to develop a normative framework that reinforces legal obligations but, most importantly, that promotes the necessary changes in policy and practice to ensure the effectiveness of the existing legal mechanisms. Resolution 1325 recognised that women perform multiple roles in conflict. They are not mere victims in need of protection, they are agents of change that experience conflict in a way that is different to men’s experiences. Women are combatants, economic, political and social actors, peace-builders and peacekeepers, leaders and advocates, and as such they ought to be recognised for their potential to contribute to the establishment and maintenance of peace. But the extent to which the Agenda has managed to do that in a way that effectively contributes to the empowerment of women, and to gender equality based on the notion that women are key stakeholders rather than passive recipients or victims, is still, questionable or, at best, limited. This is especially evident if we consider subsequent resolutions.

In addition, conceptualisation matters, as does defining the problem. And as Laura Shepherd has recently pointed out, not only do we (and international law!) keep conceptualising the role of women in conflict as passive recipients of protection and assistance, we are also failing to address the real issue of conflict-driven sexual violence by leaving out men and boys.

Why am I so skeptical about this particular event? Because I am tired of talk fests and empty rhetoric without accountability. I am increasingly tired of the altruistic objectives of people in power to save complete strangers, rather abstractly conceived (‘women in conflict’), while they fail to exercise their responsibility with those closest to them. I have met too many of these people over the years, and even worked for a few. How can we take them seriously? Of course it pays to have that abstraction as it allows you to escape the necessary reflection that would highlight that your actions might actually be contributing to the problem you are so altruistically (and with such fanfare) trying to ‘resolve’ – but without being made accountable. LET’S STOP SEXUAL VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN CONFLICT! (shhhh let’s forget about women survivors under my responsibility because that is just too real). Nice one Mr Hague.

The momentum for action is there already, and I very much believe it is irreversible. What we need is a complete shift in thinking, we need accountable leaders who walk the talk and go beyond rhetoric, and we need the political will to eradicate sexual and gender based violence in conflict. And I am not sure that this Global Summit, Angelina Jolie and all, is going to get us any closer than we already are without, at least, these three elements.




[1] For an interesting historical review see for example VISEUR SELLERS, P. The Prosecution of Sexual Violence in conflict: The Importance of Human Rights as Means of Interpretation, OCHA, Available from http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/women/docs/Paper_Prosecution_of_Sexual_Violence.pdf.

[2] See for example the Annual Report 2011 of the Team of Experts, Rule of Law/Sexual Violence in Conflict, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (2011).


Are culture and human rights incompatible?


Are human rights universal or are they dependent on cultural traditions? It is often said that the only way to advance the human rights agenda is to argue that rights are inherent and inalienable and that culture has no role to play in understanding either the content or implementation of international human rights. In response it is often argued that human rights are a Western construct not compatible with other cultures/traditions. But I have never been convinced by such arguments. And having been living in Asia for a while has made me draw a few conclusions.

The idea of universal, inherent human rights focuses on the existence of a so-called natural law, a higher moral order informed by foundational theories rooted in moral, social, political and religious ideologies. They speak to the existence and definition of human nature and what it means to have a right. These are epistemological questions that have been around for a long time.

Universality can be a tool to interfere in the internal affairs of States.  And arguably, that was the intention of the human rights system: to challenge the State and its monopoly over the means to exercise power. But this intention was also balanced with the protection of State sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention, and with the empowering of States with the responsibility to protect human rights. It is not difficult to see why a constant tension exists.

The modern human rights regime represents the institutionalisation of a set of moral values. This can be seen from the myriad mechanisms: declarations, treaties, institutions, jus cogens norms, case law, custom, etc. In this sense, even for the more skeptical of critics, it is hard to deny the existence of a set of rules and obligations that protect all persons without distinction. This, however, does not stop States from entrenching human rights violations into their Constitutions or to systematically violate human rights. Often, traditions and practices, religious beliefs and historical or geographical contexts are used to justify the relativism of human rights. This line of argument often reflects the supremacy of state sovereignty.

The development of the modern human rights regime was also a political expression of the kind of governing system that ought to exist in order to guarantee the protection of individuals. When looking at the history of the human rights regime it is impossible to ignore its cultural (and political) underpinnings. For a long time there have been claims about the implicit Western bias in the way human rights instruments have developed. But this bias is less pronounced than it is often assumed. In fact, the values articulated in human rights instruments, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are a chronological reflection of European and global values, moral lessons learnt, political ideologies, and a wide range of religious and secular traditions. Modern human rights have been influenced by Western views as much as by socialist and ‘Third-world’ views (so-called 1st generation rights, 2nd generation rights, and 3rd generation rights), both to the benefit and to the detriment of the human rights agenda.

Relativists, as they are called, often claim that universal human rights standards cannot accommodate non-Western values. Demands for group rights and cultural rights, while advancing the rights of minorities (for instance indigenous peoples), can also serve to promote the continuation of oppressive practices, as, for example, the practice of female genital mutilation as a manifestation of power politics and gender inequalities in some societies. It is for that reason that any human rights agenda cannot pretend to work in a cultural or political vacuum, least they hide national or political interest elements. Time and time again particularism and nationalism have undermined the promotion of universal human rights. Particularism speaks to different understandings of morality, of what is right and wrong, rooted in traditional practices and beliefs, and wholly context driven.

I am of the opinion that cultural relativism therefore, rather than being ignored needs to be understood in its own context, because culture has a big role to play in understanding the content of human rights and their implementation. It is true that the discourse of human rights has often become hijacked by cultural practices, religious and traditional beliefs and geopolitical conceptions. It is also often subject to domestic politics and speaks to the tensions that are often found in the way States choose (or not) to integrate international law into their domestic legislation or the way States apply the law.

Culture can be understood as tradition, national identity (both of which imply a fixed state) or as susceptible to power structures and external influences. In an evolving conception of culture, human rights can become part of culture, in turn contributing to the universalisation of human rights. But more often than not, political considerations, the primacy of the principle of sovereignty, and the tensions inherent have a bearing on the way cultures can adopt human rights values. Unfortunately this seems to be the norm. Take a look at the 1993 Bangkok declaration in which Asian countries recognised the existence of human rights. On reading this the declaration you will see that, while to most Western countries human rights are a means to an end (prosperity, etc.), for Asian countries human rights are the end itself, subject to other conditions such as economic development. The UK or Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers another example of how politics construct culture (not the other way around) in applying the law.

Cultural traditions and religious practices are often a source of gender discrimination. Arguably, any cultural tradition that allows the subjugation of half of a society, the use of violence and the constant portrayal of people as weak and worthless should be eliminated as a cultural tradition. It is, thus, not about preserving cultural traditions, it is about preserving a status of power relations. Culture can be empowering for human rights. Power politics a hindrance. Relativists often argue in favour of the latter, and hijack the evolution of culture in the process. Watching a recent National Geographic documentary about India, a marriage ceremony was explained and glorified as a celebrated cultural tradition while the (female) narrator recounted the process of symbolising the bride becoming the property of the husband and her subjugation in marriage. The whole procedure romanticised the tradition while ignoring its symbolic meaning for the perpetuation of violence against women and girls in India, an issue that has dominated international media since the brutal gang rape and death of an Indian student in New Delhi in December 2012, and countless others since.

Time and time again women’s rights, and other rights are seen as relative issues subject to cultural and religious beliefs rather than as a core human rights issue. Arguably the question should not be whether human rights are compatible with values and cultural traditions, but whether values and cultural traditions are compatible with human rights. In that case, the values of both Western and non-Western nations are put to the test.

Nonetheless, culture is the only way of understanding the content and implementation of human rights because it places those rights in the specific context. We should avoid the trap of believing that culture is fixed and learn to identify cultural values and practices that serve to perpetuate the subordination of peoples, discrimination, unfair treatment or violence, and those that promote human rights. Culture is not incompatible with human rights. Politics, power relations, lack of education and a State that fails to implement its obligations are. Ignoring the role that culture can play in advancing, as well as hindering, the human rights agenda is doing a disservice to the project of universalising human rights.

Antigone. Painting by Frederic Leighton, 1882.