During today’s session at the UN Human Rights Council, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia justified their repression of gays and women with the argument that human rights should be based on “morals” and “traditional values” rather than universal principles of individual rights.

During the discussion of the report on Cameroon‘s rights record, the delegation spent a significant portion of its speech defending its rejection of the report’s recommendations to stop criminalizing homosexuality. It said that, in its view, legal measures against homosexuals were neither contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) nor to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It explained that there are “safeguard clauses that can be invoked based on moral features” in the UDHR and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Cameroon argued that, “As things stand in the culture of my country, homosexuality is not considered a value permitted by Cameroon’s society, and the legislature has enshrined the predominant social value.”

When time came to discuss the report on Saudi Arabia, it said that countries “must take into consideration particularities, stages of development, and evolution of societies” in reviewing its rights record. “This requires an understanding of each culture and the values and principles that guide it.” In rejecting various recommendations, including those asking it to put an end to its systemic discrimination against women, Saudi Arabia explained that these “might fail to achieve the goals to which they aspire due to misunderstanding of the values guiding each culture, or to inaccurate appraisal of the real situation.”

Algeria backed this claim, saying it “welcomes the fact that the delegation of Saudi Arabia” has put the recommendations “in line with their cultural and religious specificities, especially in regards to Islamic shari’a.”

In a related note, a new, convoluted Russian draft resolution is threatening to instruct the UN to conform to the approach of these authoritarian states. Entitled, “Strengthening Respect for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms through a More Profound Understanding of Traditional Values of Mankind,” the resolution would enable reactionaries like Islamists and Putinists to undermine individual rights with the claim that they are upholding the morals of their societies. Though the draft says that fundamental freedoms override cultural specificities, it also redefines these freedoms, arguing that “human rights and traditional values of humankind are mutually reinforcing” and that “a more profound understanding of and adherence to these values constitute a way to promote and strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

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