At the 31st Session of the Council, the report that was mandated by the protection of family resolution in the 29th Session was tabled. The report was the outcome of a controversial resolution in the 29th Session of the Council which 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? Many states as well as civil society activists who were concerned about LGBTI rights, child rights and gender rights were concerned that it would be a vehicle to roll back hard won rights.
The Report that was tabled did a fine job of addressing these concerns while at the same time stressing the role of the family in poverty eradication and achieving sustainable development.
The Report noted that:
International human rights instruments have long recognized that the family is a fundamental unit of society, which performs valuable functions for its members and for the community as whole. For these reasons, it is widely recognized that States bear the primary obligation to provide protection and assistance to the family so it can fully assume these functions.
After acknowledging the centrality of the family to international human rights law, the Report goes on caveat this recognition in two specific ways. Firstly the Report observed that:
International standards do not prescribe a specific concept of family, which varies depending on the concrete historical, social, cultural and economic make-up of the community and of the life circumstances of family members.
This recognition of diversity of families in turn allows for the Report to document the fact that:
Several States have introduced changes in their legislation allowing for the legal recognition of relationships between persons of the same sex. In Argentina, the Egalitarian Marriage Law (Law No. 26618) expressly allowed for same-sex marriages. In Sweden, the reform of the Marriage Code in 2009 made the definition of marriage gender neutral, thus granting people the right to marry regardless of the sex of the spouses. In other countries, same-sex couples have been recognized by judicial action.
It should be noted that the recognition of diversity of families was what was proposed both in the informal negotiations and by way of amendments in the 29th Session of the Human Rights Council in particular by South Africa and rejected by a vote on the floor of the Council. So in a sense though the 29thCouncil can be viewed as a defeat for the proposition that protection of families explicitly mean protection of diverse forms of family, the 31st Session brought the language of diversity back into the debate on the role of the family.
The second strong concern in the 29thSession of the Council was around the protection afforded to those within the family who may be subjected to abuse by the more dominant members of the family be it women, children or LGBTI persons. This concern was again addressed by the Report as it unequivocally stated that there is a ‘right to equality in the family’ and a right not to be subjected to violence or abuse within the family’. Again the report specifically referenced the point that ‘The Committee on the Rights of the Child has called for States to protect children from discrimination based on their own or their parents- or legal guardian’s sexual orientation or gender identity.’
The Report concluded by noting that:
This consensus regarding the role of families in sustainable development is grounded in a number of common elements. These include the need to recognize the diverse and changing forms of the family institution, in accordance with the different social, cultural and economic characteristics of every society; the promotion of equality between men and women; and the effective protection and promotion of the rights of women, children, persons with disabilities, older persons and any other family member, without distinctions. Moreover, ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, should be an integral part of development efforts.
In the interactive dialogue, the debate which took place in the 29th Session of the Council continued. Some speakers said that multiple United Nations consensus documents made it clear that the term “family” was understood to refer to the union of a man and a woman, others stressed the importance of a wide definition of the concept of “family” which embraced “all forms of families in different contexts.”
The states and NGO’s that expressed some form of reservation were:
Russian Federation, speaking on behalf of a group of countries sponsors of resolution 29/22 on the protection of the family, thanked the High Commissioner for producing report A/HRC/31/37 and reaffirmed that the family was the natural and fundamental unit of the society. States were under explicit international legal obligation to provide effective protection and support for the family unit. Russian Federation noted that the report had tackled issues that fell outside the scope of resolution 29/22.
Kyrgyzstan expressed gratitude for the report on the protection of the family, which was the primary means of transmitting values. Kyrgyzstan had adopted a national strategy on reproductive issues as relating to the family among other initiatives and the Government paid particular attention to the elderly. Family, fatherhood, motherhood and children were the concern of the whole society.
Sudan said that the world faced challenges that required joint work. The family remained the main nucleus of society, and Sudan’s definition of a family fell within its value system. The Constitution of Sudan ensures freedom of expression, assembly, and belief, among numerous other rights which were also enumerated.
Global Helping to Advance Women and Children noted the report on the protection of the family. Multiple United Nations consensus documents made it clear that the term “family” was understood to refer to the union of a man and a woman. They were concerned that the report claimed that there was no definition of the family under international human rights law and opposed all references to “various forms of the family.”
Alliance Defending Freedom said that the family unit required State protection and assistance, including through positive measures. The idea of recognizing the diversity of families however did not support international consensus. Children benefited greatly from an intact family structure comprised of a mother and a father.
The states and NGO’s that welcomed the recognition of ‘diversity of families’ were:
Spain welcomed the report on the family and its inclusion of the need to protect all family members, noting that the report also said there was a need to recognise the ever-changing forms of the family. Spain condemned discrimination against women, children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
Chile, referring to the report on the family, said that the concept of a family could vary, and should not be exclusively reduced to marriage or a single form. The principle of equality and non-discrimination had to be respected, along with the principle of the best interest of the child. Chile said that it was vital to have an open view of the application of human rights when it came to the family, so as not to discriminate against vulnerable populations.
Groupe des ONG pour la Convention relative aux droits de l’enfant, in a joint statement with, Save the Children International; SOS Children’s Villages International; Defence for Children International; and Plan International Inc., said neither the Convention on the Rights of the Child, nor the report presented today by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, provided a fixed or limited definition of “family.” It urged the Human Rights Council and States to explicitly acknowledge the broad contextualised nature of “family” and refer to “all forms of families in different contexts” in debates and international documents.
World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, in a joint statement with, International Association of Charities, said that States had the obligation to provide the widest protection and well-being to families. It reminded of the fundamental role of the family in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, and called on States to implement family-sensitive policies, especially in the area of education and employment.
International Humanist and Ethical Union welcomed the mention in the report on the protection of the family of the right to decide the number and spacing of children, which should be understood to support a woman’s ability to obtain necessary reproductive services, including safe and legal abortion care. It also welcomed the clarification that there was no standard definition of the family.
One can understand that this battle over the definition of the family is not over. At present the groups working to preserve a wider definition of the family may have won a temporary victory as LGBT persons found space both within the specific language of the Report as well as in the recognition of diversity of families by the Report.
For further information on HRC31:
Arvind Narrain | Geneva Director
Kim Vance | Executive Director
All documents referenced in this Report can be found here.