“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” So says one character in George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian novel in which “Newspeak” redefines many words and eliminates many more.
Away from the U.S. media spotlight, the United Nations Human Rights Council today took the Orwellian step of redefining its very mission: the term “human rights.” For more than two hundred years, human rights have been (as the term implies) rights borne by individuals. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” reads the U.S. Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Setting aside the Framers’ limited understanding of “men,” these and other fundamental statements of rights set forth rights that pertain to individuals. But today, a majority of Human Rights Council members voted that they may pertain to groups as well—specifically, to families. This is not the usual sense of “group rights” such as a nation’s right to self-determination, or a minority group’s rights to be free from discrimination. On the contrary, granting human rights to “families” is meant to take individuals’ rights away.
In a surprisingly lopsided vote, the HRC stated that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and entitled to protection by society and the State” and discuss states’ obligations to provide such protection.
To those unaccustomed to the machinations of the UN, this may seem like yet another insignificant and toothless resolution. But it is actually a big deal.
First, this resolution is part of a massive campaign, led by an “unholy alliance” of Russia and developing world countries, to fundamentally alter the definition of ‘human rights.’ Alongside the radical proposition that rights are enjoyed by groups as well as individuals—which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would justify one group excluding or marginalizing other populations in order to protect its collective rights—there are several processes underway that would include “traditional values” as human rights in and of themselves.
Put into practice, this would mean that countries could deny a woman or gay person’s individual rights (to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for example) in the name of the “traditional values” rights of others. Thus, those in power can imprison gays, prevent women from voting, and similar “traditional” things, all under the cover of international law. Where today international human rights norms are used to hold countries accountable for such acts, tomorrow’s would permit—indeed, favor—them.
Second, the way this vote panned out is particularly horrifying. As the “Protection of the Family” resolution was being developed, it became clear to more liberal nations that it was going to pass. Even the United States was loathe to vote against a resolution “protecting the family”—who doesn’t want to protect families? So, an amendment was proposed—formally put forward by Uruguay—that would acknowledge that “various forms of the family exist.”
This amendment would cover not just same-sex couples, of course, but families where grandparents raise the kids, or single-parent families—anything other than the assumed norm of the “traditional” family. And it would make clear that subsequent UN action could not be used as a club against families diverging from that norm.
But as soon as Uruguay proposed the amendment, Russia pulled a little-used administrative trick—a “no-action” motion—to prevent it from even being discussed. That motion passed 22-20, with 4 abstentions. The United States voted against.
In other words, the Human Rights Council decided not to even talk about the diversity of families. Talk about don’t ask, don’t tell.
And then there was the final tally: 26-14-6. There was hope that some “swing” countries—South Africa, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam—might vote against, or at least abstain. But they didn’t. This margin represents a significant victory for Putin’s Russia, which is building an anti-Western bloc using women’s and LGBT rights as wedge issues.
To get a sense of the bloc, here are the 20 other countries that voted with Russia: Algeria, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, China, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Namibia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. A motley crew, to be sure: Islamic states, sub-Saharan Africa, China. What unifies them? These are generally countries with appalling human rights records. But if they get to redefine what “human rights” even means, then they might suddenly look like Amnesty International.
In other words, the entire international framework of human rights is in danger. Not from this one UN decision necessarily, but from the campaign of which this is a small part. The question is, will anyone notice?
There are some hopeful elements in an otherwise dreadful day for human rights.
First, contrary to Russia’s binary rhetoric, this is not an East-West, or North-South, split. Voting with the United States and Europe were Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Japan, Mexico, Peru, and South Korea. The gradual but inexorable movement of Latin America to the pro-human-rights side is a significant shift, little noticed in the introverted United States but with great importance overseas.
Second, it could have been even worse. Saudi Arabia had proposed an amendment specifically defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Fortunately, when Russia’s anti-diversity motion passed, Saudi Arabia withdrew it.
Third, as is often the case with UN resolutions, today’s act is only the first step. We’re a long way from family values—now family rights—being used to defend anti-women or anti-gay laws in international courts. Sometimes, the grindingly slow pace of the United Nations can be a blessing.
Finally, it’s possible that this vote might serve as a wakeup call to Americans who assume that “human rights” are universal and agreed-upon. As has often been the case with issues of LGBT equality, this vote is the canary in the coalmine. Just as Putin clamped down on gays as part of a wider destruction of civil society, so too the Putin Bloc at the United Nations is attacking gays and women as part of a wider attack on the concept of human rights itself. Maybe, just maybe, this warning sign won’t be ignored.
Then again, it’s probably naïve to hope that Americans will ever care what happens at the UN. But we should.