Decoding the Politics Underlying the Resolution on Protection of the Family

Decoding the Politics Underlying the Resolution on Protection of the Family

JURIST Guest Columnist Arvind Narrain of ARC discusses the intricacies of the definition of family in the international human rights arena and what this means for LGBTI people, women and children…

A significant development in the 29th Session of the Human Rights Council was the passing of a deeply controversial resolution to ‘protect the family’. The Resolution was sponsored by a cross-regional group of states including Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Mauritania, Morocco, Russian Federation, Tunisia, Uganda, Qatar, Belarus, China and Bangladesh. The ‘controversy’ at the center of the resolution concerned the intent of the resolution itself. Was it to protect the family, or was it to use the language of protecting the family to actually target those who were vulnerable to abuse within families including children, women and LGBTI persons?

The problems with the resolution, as articulated by both states opposing the resolution as well as civil society invested in working on rights of women, children and LGBTI people, were that:

(1) The resolution was titled protection of the family, while in reality in regions around the world, there were a diversity of family forms.
(2) The mandate of international human rights law is to protect individuals and not institutions. Rights holders had to be individuals, hence it was misplaced to attempt to protect the family.

(3) The resolution also refused to acknowledge that at points there may be a conflict between individual rights and tradition.

What gives a clue as to the motivations of the sponsors was the response of the core group to the South African amendment to the resolution proposing that the resolution recognize a diversity of families. In response, the core states moved a no action motion, preventing debate on the amendment. The fact that the core group wanted to even prevent debate on this issue indicates that this perhaps was the crux of what an otherwise wordy and confusing resolution was trying to protect.

It is possible to surmise that the resolution at its heart was premised on the targeting of the rights of LGBTI persons and the use of the language of, ‘protection of the family’ was only a means to an end. This emerged most critically in Egypt’s statement introducing the resolution. As Egypt noted,

Speaking about absolute and unspecified diversity can be an invitation to cast protection on family settings where human rights may not flourish to be respected. Family is family everywhere as a unit that bonds men, women and children together…[family] should remain reflective of similar essence and shared values.

The crucial intent of the resolution was to circumscribe diversity within the notion that a family was a bond between men, women and children. This core intent was manifested in another amendment moved by Pakistan which called for a recognition that “men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the rights to marry and to found a family, bearing in mind that marriage is a union between a man and a woman” (emphasis provided).

One approach to unpacking the meaning of the resolution is by understanding the family as an institution marked by relationships of power, where the more powerful exercise domination over the less powerful; i.e. heterosexual men over women, children and LGBTI persons. Therefore protecting the family is to really protect the interests of the more powerful family members against the less powerful ones.

Though the resolution does state the principle of equality between men and women, the very fact that the resolution is premised on the protection of the family sets up a tension. The tension is between the major premise of the resolution, which is the protection of the family, and the minor premise, which is gender equality. It is up to activism in the coming days to ensure that in future resolutions, the major premise of family protection does not expand at the expense of the minor premise. Thinking optimistically, one should consider whether it is possible to invert the order such that gender equality becomes the major premise and family protection the minor premise?

One could ask the question — as to whether on the terms set by the core group itself — is the core group really committed to the protection of the family? It is telling that even a wordy protection of the family resolution is extraordinarily silent on the protection of civil and political rights and its implication for the protection of the family.

One of the factors, which has rendered families deeply vulnerable to disintegration, is the practice of enforced disappearance. The question of how the practice of enforced disappearances is a threat to the family is best captured in a report popularly known as, Nunca Más, on the disappearances perpetrated by the Argentinian military from 1978 to 1983. In this time period, thousands of Argentinians were disappeared by the military junta. As Nunca Mas observed:

It is a feature of the disappearance syndrome that the stability and structure of the family of the person who disappears is profoundly affected….Behind each disappearance, there is often a family that is destroyed or dismembered, and always a family that is assaulted in what is most intimate: its right to privacy, to the security of its members, and to respect for the profoundly affectionate relations that are the reason for its existence.

The question of enforced disappearances as a fundamental attack on the family is also squarely referenced by the Human Rights Council in the context of the enforced disappearances by both state and non-state actors in Syria.

The Report[Arabic and English] on Syria identifies the crux of the violation caused by disappearances,

The heart of the anguish suffered by families lies in the authorities systematic refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or to disclose any information about the relatives. Across Syria, parents, siblings, husbands, wives, children and friends wait anxiously to know the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones… This mental anguish may rise to the level of torture or inhuman treatment and makes entire families the victims of enforced disappearances.

It is this comprehensive understanding of how destructive the practice of enforced disappearances is to the security of the family unit, which is entirely absent in the family resolution. None of the core sponsors, be it Russia, China, Egypt, Belarus or Qatar have ratified the Convention on Enforced Disappearances. On the contrary, as a matter of state practice, there is ample documentation of the enforced disappearance of political opponents of the regime by Belarus, activists in Crimea and in Chechnya by Russia and perceived political opponents by Egypt.

Thus one needs to place the family resolution within a wider political context. One thing common among the key sponsors is that they practice repression at home even when they take on the task of defending the family both at home and internationally. Clearly, repressive states suffer from a crisis of legitimacy. When a state has to take up arms against its own people, its own capacity to represent the diversity and plurality of the nation is severely called into question. This crisis of legitimacy often leads to states trying to refurbish their reputations by becoming defenders of notions such as family, culture and tradition.

Unfortunately, the championship of these notions is not neutral and results in the scapegoating of minorities, be it religious or sexual. To take the case of Egypt, this crisis of legitimacy of the new military government headed by General Sisi had led to an intensified campaign against LGBT people. As FIDH in its report [PDF] notes that, “since October 2011, campaigns targeting LGBT persons have become more frequent.” Sensationalist coverage “depicts homosexuality as a crime, gives common currency to the idea that since the revolution LGBT persons have increased in number and are part of a foreign plot threatening Egyptian society.” The targeting of LGBT people is nothing else but “the regime’s strategy to demonstrate its moral conservatism in an attempt to gain the support of Islamist fringes of the population whose support brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power.”

Added to the brutal targeting of minorities within the country goes an attempt to refurbish one’s credentials at the international level. It is in the context of this unprecedented mass repression back in Egypt that the reasons for the Egyptian government’s leadership of the resolution to protect the family need to be understood.

Thus it is possible to conclude that the core states are not serious in wanting to protect the family and that if one pushes the logic of protection of the family in certain directions, the lack of seriousness is bound to show. If such is indeed the understanding, then one needs ask: can a resolution to protect the family be proposed, which is uncompromising on the questions of gender equality, child rights and rights of LGBTI persons? Can such a resolution at the same time enlarge an understanding of how repressive state practices from enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, and arbitrary imposition of the death penalty are all practices which threaten the family at its root? Can the dichotomy between protecting the family and protecting the individual be shown to be false?

In short: is an inclusive, rights-oriented resolution of the family possible?

Arvind Narrain is the Geneva Director of Arc International which works on international advocacy of LGBTI issues.

Suggested citation: Arvind Narrain, Decoding the Politics Underlying the Resolution on Protection of the Family, JURIST – Professional Commentary, Sept. 5, 2015, http://jurist.org/professional/2010/09/arvind-narrain-resolution-on-protection-of-the-family.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Marisa Rodrigues, a Staff Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

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