Human Rights Coucil in session. Photo: UNLet’s face it: there is a lot wrong with Russia. Twenty years after the fall of communism the man who gave the Soviet system the coup de grace, Mikhail Gorbachev, is complaining that there is no democracy in the country and that the Kremlin is not interested in fighting corruption or solving the murders of prominent critics such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

The Russian Federation’s demographic and social problems are notorious. Abuse of alcohol among Russians is possibly the worst in the world; levels of fatal injury and violence are extreme and life expectancy for men approaches third world level. As in the first world, family life is in decline but with worse consequences for children; fertility is well below replacement and the total population is in decline. If you re-aspire to Great Power status, you need people.

But the Russians, always slightly mysterious to westerners, are also capable of surprising us. In recent years the government has shown a certain realism about fundamental issues such as family life and demography that tends to be lacking in the West. It has introduced policies favouring marriage and fertility; at recent United Nations meetings it has promoted pro-natalism rather than population control and resisted attempts to get “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” language embedded in human rights instruments.

Why, though, would gay rights — which is the only remaining gender issue for Russia — trouble a nation that has used abortion as its main method of birth control for decades and seems to have largely forgotten the Ten Commandments? Does it have a moral scruple about homosexuality, or is it just a matter — as the Mayor of Moscow has implied — of containing the spread of HIV/Aids?

Piero Tozzi, a lawyer and Executive Vice President and General Counsel of C-FAM, a Catholic organisation that monitors the UN closely, suggests that Russia has genuine moral concerns as a result of its unique recent history. “Russia’s revolution occurred in 1917, not 1968. They basically missed out on the great social revolution that has turned western morality on its head. The left in Russia is the political left – former communists, ex-KGB – not the latex left.”

Politically, says Tozzi, Vladimir Putin and company see a benefit in aligning with the Russian Orthodox Church, “which remains a potent symbol of Russian nationalism and is serious about these moral issues.”

Earlier this year President Dmitry Medvedev met with the leaders of Russia’s traditional religions and agreed that the history and culture of the country’s main religions should be included in the core school curriculum. He also agreed that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation should have military priests. The dominant concern behind this deal was the spiritual, moral and physical health of the younger generation.

It is not quite so surprising, then, to find the Russian Federation at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council early this month sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” that rattled the cage of the sexual liberation lobby represented by the European Union, the United States and their allies.

The resolution called for the UN Commissioner for Human Rights to convene a workshop next year “for an exchange of views on how a better understand of traditional values of humankind underpinning international human rights norms and standards can contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms…” It provided for a fully representative gathering of “interested States, regional organisations, national human rights institutions and civil society, as well as experts selected with due consideration given to the appropriate representation of different civilisations and legal systems”.

Now, this is quite a mouthful and seems to cover all the bases required for a reasonable and timely discussion of what has become a highly contentious issue both nationally and internationally: the philosophical basis for the new rights being promoted under the banner of gender equality. The representatives of 25 other developing/non-western nations, including heavyweights China and India supported Russia’s proposal and carried the vote, but 15 developed nations and fellow travellers voted against it — and some were very annoyed about it.

Of the latter group, those who commented on the resolution confirmed that gender was the big issue. Steering clear of sexual orientation, they focussed on women and raised the spectre of genital mutilation and violence against women as well as other harmful practices violating the rights of women and children. Their technical objection was that the term “traditional values” was not defined in the resolution, leaving an opening for values and practices inconsistent with international human rights law.

But isn’t this precisely the sort of thing that would be debated at the workshop? Why be so scared of a dialogue that could deal with the underlying tensions between states and blocs over human rights unless the real game at the UN is ideological domination by the few over the many? As the Cuban representative (who supported the resolution) observed, values bearing on human rights such as respect, tolerance, good faith and dialogue had been missing in the negotiations preceding the vote.

The United States representative, Douglas M Griffiths, was in an awkward position. The Obama administration is trying to “reset” its relationship with Russia as an ally against Iran and although during her visit to Russia this month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke publicly about human rights, they were rights touching on political freedoms rather than gay rights or other gender issues. In keeping with the new détente with Russia, Griffiths expressed US opposition to the Federation’s “traditional values” resolution almost apologetically, and only after thanking the sponsor for having conducted “open and transparent consultations”.

In any case, it looks as though Russia is going to get its workshop on values and human rights, with whatever outcomes it has at the UN. Perhaps there is some other, more political motive behind this initiative, but it could also be that the Russians, like some other states (those with Muslim majorities, for example), are simply fed up with the gay rights issue being pushed at every possible opportunity.

Says Piero Tozzi: “My impression is that they are genuinely puzzled about the whole thing. To them the gay agenda is self-evidently morally wrong and also irrelevant to such major concerns as the declining birthrate and its threat to national security.

“They wonder what has gotten into the Europeans, the Kiwis, Canadians and Blue State Americans when there are more serious things to worry about. I suppose they figure there must be something in the water – which is probably why, quite sensibly, they stick to their vodka.”

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...