Sunday, January 16, 2011

the United Nations and Human Rights Male Normativity

This semester I am taking a course called "Human Rights in Global Perspectives." As opposed to the class I took last semester on the politics of accessing human rights, this course is actually on the theory, philosophy, rhetoric and implementation of human rights internationally, and to a certain extent, on state level.

As part of the course work, I have had to read different treaties and agreements on human, civil/political and socio-economic rights. Tonight I have read the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. All three are quite short reads and fairly repetitive, so if you want to have a look through them, I would recommend that you do.

What struck me to begin with is that these arguments are such blatantly male-centric documents, probably because they are written by men and for men. Remember, CEDAW - the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women - came later, as it was widely viewed that women's rights were not sufficiently covered by these previous covenants.

And no wonder that UN, member states and women's rights groups felt the need to create a separate and complementary agreement referring specifically to women and women's needs after these, so called, universal rights documents had been produced. The covenants are literally teeming with male-centric language and rhetoric. In every single instance, when referring to an individual in the documents, "his," "him," "he" is used. Even if the use of the gender neutral plural pronouns were not widespread at the time, it would not have taken much energy and effort to add a corresponding female noun there to make sure that the female gender was represented as well. Although, it should be noted that this would probably not be accepted practice today anyway, as there are people who do not define as either gender and are thus not covered by these gendered nouns. Unfortunately, this thinking had not come as far in the 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was finalised, nor in 1966 when the two covenants were.

If it were not blatantly obvious in the way that any other genders but the male gender are excluded, it is certainly obvious in the very first article of the UDHR, which states
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
The word 'brotherhood' implies that either we are operating under a male normative set of rules, i.e., all people, women, men, all human beings, should act and operate under the rules for something which is defined as 'brotherhood', implied by the name to be a set of rules set up by males for males. Even if this would be an inclusive set of rules, welcoming all genders, it would still be referring to a specific set of male normative rules. If it is not inclusive, then it means that all genders, apart from the male one, would not be included in this 'spirit of brotherhood', which is a human right. Women and other people not identifying as male, would thus be excluded from human rights. This is set out in the very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As if this was not enough, the sacrosanctity of heteronormative culture is also inscribed in the Covenant on Civil and Policial Rights (1966) in Article 23. I quote (my bold):
Article 23

1. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

2. The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to found a family shall be recognized.

3. No marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

4. States Parties to the present Covenant shall take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. In the case of dissolution, provision shall be made for the necessary protection of any children.

There is so much wrong in this article, but let me just start out by saying the natural and fundamental group of society? In this part of a sentence, the UN and its signatories have assumed that the heteronormative family is a biological fact and that it shall not be threatened. By what? Gay marriage, probably. Assuming that blood bonds are very strong is not in itself a wrong, but not defining what they mean by 'family' is. I assume, however, that in the 1960s, when this covenant was agreed upon, it was quite self-evident what was meant with 'family,' as homosexuality was still illegal in many countries. Point 2, also indicates that this was the intention, as "the right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and found a family..." probably means to each other and not to whomever they so wish.

That fact, alone, should make all of us question the intention of universal human rights. Or shall I say universal as long as one conforms to the white male heteronormative society in which families are the untouchable cornerstones of society and women are not a part of being human to the extent that complementary agreements have to be made to ensure that they, too, are covered by human rights. (If you want more information on either of these topics, just look into the two of big debates within human rights 'are women human?' and 'are human rights Western?')

International debate and treaties made by international organs like the UN are riddled with gendered language. If there is one thing that I have learned while reading for my dissertation on the discourse around women in conflict, it is that. While there seems to be a will to mainstream gender into organisations, which essentially means making sure that gender has been taken into consideration at all times, there is a disconnect between that and the implementation of gender-neutral policies. Not to mention that gender mainstreaming as an approach has been severely criticised, among other things, for 'streaming' women away, neglecting women's particular concerns that may exist.

So when I am reading documents like these, the fundamentals of human rights, which are supposed to be universal, and women are supposed to be included, but the language is so blatantly male-centric, it is hard to believe that things will get better. The problem is that the entire framework within which, and upon which, human rights implementation, discourse and philosophy are based, is gendered. Regardless of what improvements we do in the future, there will always be the male-centric original documents that to a certain extent neglect or exclude women and other people who do not identify as male. Added to that, it also excludes LGBTQ groups that wish to exercise, what is supposed to be a universal right to marry whomever they wish.

As long as our rights are based on a male perspective, we will be excluded in one way or another - through implementation, in the rhetoric (which is a severe problem), in the discourse (which is slightly different from the rhetoric), in the philosophy, in the politics - in all aspects. Human rights cannot be universal until everyone is included, and according to the Western thought on human rights, they are. Human rights may be inalienable and universal, but the implementation and thought certainly do not ensure this. It could even be said to hinder the universality of human rights through its exclusionary nature. If human rights are to be universal, rhetorical issues like these need to be paid attention to. Ignoring gendered aspects of human rights is not benefiting anyone, apart from the white male.


  1. As you said the Declaration of Human Rights is a product of its time and when it came out it was an astonishing accomplishment. So, it seems a bit unfair to be overly 'ticked off' as it refers to people as 'he' or 'him'.

    I hope you don't start subscribing to the conspiracy theory of males constructing society against females, with such statements as:

    "What struck me to begin with is that these arguments are such blatantly male-centric documents, probably because they are written by men and for men."

    As to the first point of Article 23:

    "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State."

    This statement is ambiguous whether or not the parents are heterosexual or homosexual (though, given the date it was created, probably heterosexual). Moreover, I do see the family as a special unit that seems to be 'natural' for our species, despite what Engels says (e.g. women and children as slaves). They tried to raise children collectively in the Israeli kibbutz's but this failed due to the special relationship between biological parents and their children as you have noted.

    As there has been subsequent additions (CEDAW and social righs) to the original universal Human rights declaration it seems odd that you still seem to hold a grudge against it. I would focus more on being ticked off on those who violate them.

    *Being a white male (especially straight) is hard even though it is from Western civilization that the idea of 'Rights' emerged (damn you Locke et al. !) ;) Are we imperialist for declaring our Human Rights on others ?

  2. No, I don't think it's unfair to be 'overly ticked off.' I have read many of the subsequent documents and scholarly arguments on the topic (I am doing my dissertation on the discourse on women in conflict with a focus on insitutions) and I would, and will, argue that these documents are still very coloured by (white) male-centric heteronormativity. There is a huge problem between rhetoric and implementation when it comes to women's rights, especially in developing countries, and the rhetoric is not that fantastic to begin with. So. no, I do not believe that I should just swallow any criticism I might have against the foundation of human rights, upon which all other arguments are being built on. If the foundations are (white) male-centric heteronormative, so will subsequent documents be, to one degree or another.

    I am not subscribing to any theory that males are constructing a society that is anti-female. However, not to admit that in the course of history, men have been more powerful than women is to be wilfully ignorant of history. History has not been written in the past 50 or 60 years, patterns and distribution of power will take longer to break than that. Flip the coin, and you will see the same thing with men being disadvantaged when it comes to parental leave. Patterns of society and power structures are based on discourses that have been shaped over centuries. If the origin of it was male-centric, the outcome will be to a degree as well. As I have said before, Ruth Lister in her book on Citizenship structures a very good picture of this, and if we are still to operate in the nation-state structures, then any citizenship discourse will be based on one that was originally structured according to a male-centric view, meant only for males. The very origin of the rhetoric of it is male-centric and this colours any future debates.

    I am not saying that there are blood bonds are not strong as you have noticed; I am criticising the heteronormativity of human rights. Lesbian couples can have biological children, and in either case, to argue that adoptive parents feel nothing for their children and vice versa will offend a lot of people that will fiercely argue against you. Also, blood bonds do not automatically mean an irrational biologically-based will to stay in touch with blood-related family. I am a proof of this. Strong familial bonds can be shaped through other means than blood and blood sometimes does not trump other difficulties. While blood might facilitate these bonds, they are by no means the only way to build a family, and that the UDHR denies this is simply unacceptable. It creates a hierarchy of family in which heterosexual couplings with offspring are put on a pedestal and viewed as untouchable and, above all, the least unproblematic. Child abuse (sexual, psychological and physical) by parents or any other blood-related relative as well as rape by a blood-relative disproves the theory that the heteronormative (or any kind of) family is always a social good. (Cont.)

  3. Also, with it pertaining to marriage, are you to say then that married couples who choose not to, or cannot have children, are or should be less valid when it comes to access their human rights, because this is really what we're talking about here, on the basis that they are not blood-related (as that is illegal in most countries to marry one's close relative) and they have no common offspring by blood to keep the bond? I do not think, at all, that the UDHR means that. I would suppose that 'family' in the document is meant to be interpreted as any unit of a married man and woman aspiring to or already having children (adopted or biological). It's heteronormative and it excludes and discriminates many people. Although, obviously, I may be wrong, and the UDHR means to exclude any married couple who are not blood-related and do not have offspring.
    (Also notice how this entire article refers to marriage, obviously with the purpose of putting marriage - which is not a biological contract - above any other form of relationship in which parents are unmarried, or perhaps cannot marry. This is also completely ridiculous.)

    I have a problem with CEDAW and subsequent rights too (see beginning of this comment), and the fact that there exist rights that are supposed to protect women and give them equality does not give them the automatic status of 'untouchable'. There are problems with the phrasing of rights and the male-centric, state-centric, heteronormative rhetoric in which they are being formulated (obviously, it has become better, but it is still not 'fine') and also implemented. As long as the system in which these rights are formulated and implemented is unequal, so will the outcome be.

    Being a human being is hard for anyone. But if you have enjoyed a power-position for most of modern history, you're going to have to start compromising some. The whole point with feminism, women's movements, LGBTQ movements, any social/civil/political rights movement is to reach equality on all those levels, not to leap ahead, but obviously the groupings that are already ahead in different areas are going to have to give some or allow other individuals to rise to an equal level (like mothers in parental rights).

  4. Ehrm.. Obviously it should be "It creates a hierarchy of family in which heterosexual couplings with offspring are put on a pedestal and viewed as untouchable and, above all, the least problematic" not UNproblematic. Slipped through proofing, that one, and needs to be corrected.