I’ve written before about how international human rights law increasingly reflects the norms of the so-called WEIRD countries – that’s Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic – and assumes that those norms must be honored across the globe. This assumption is going to lead to problems. Whether or not WEIRD values are good ones – and there are some very good WEIRD values, such as religious freedom – they are not universal, and the attempt to impose them wholesale, without taking local cultures and histories into account, will only backfire. Most of the world is not WEIRD, after all, and people naturally resent outsiders telling them they must remake their societies to conform to norms they find alien.
A good example of what I’m describing is this month’s Joint Statement by the United Nations Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and Practice. The statement calls on nations to decriminalize adultery. Now, there is a valid point here. In some countries, the criminal laws against adultery are unfairly enforced: women are punished much more harshly than men. The Working Group could have done some good by providing details about this sort of discrimination and calling on nations to administer justice equally.
In fact, though, the Working Group goes much further. Under international law, it claims, nations may not make adultery a crime at all. “Almost two decades ago,” it reminds readers, “international human rights jurisprudence established that criminalization of sexual relations between consenting adults is a violation of their right to privacy and infringement of article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” or ICCPR. The reference to “international human rights jurisprudence” is not explained, but the Working Group is presumably referring to decisions of the UN Human Rights Committee, a body of experts that monitors compliance with the ICCPR. The statement continues: “States parties to the Covenant are obliged to ensure that domestic norms take account of developments in international law and incorporate interpretations of the decisions of international courts and international and regional human rights mechanisms, including the treaty bodies and special procedures.” In other words, hurry up and get WEIRD.
Now, among the nations that have ratified the ICCPR are scores of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. These are all traditional, non-WEIRD societies. None of these countries would have dreamed, when they ratified the ICCPR, that article 17’s right to privacy encompassed a right to commit adultery, or that they were ceding to a group of international experts the authority to remake the values of their societies. “Well,” the Working Group says to these countries, “you were wrong, and you’d better get with the program.” Or else? What? We’ll send in the blue helmets? Here’s the most likely consequence of the Working Group’s overreaching: these nations will ignore the Working Group and the Human Rights Committee and continue to criminalize adultery, which they believe to be a wrong that their laws should address, and dismiss international human rights norms as illegitimate and irrelevant. In which case, the cause of human rights will not be advanced, at all.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University