Signed in 1945, Article 1 of the United Nations Charter calls on all nations to cooperate “in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” Seventy-three years later, the international community continues to advance this mission, including through the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, if the international community is to reach targets such as improving gender equality, public health and biodiversity by 2030, it must address controversial cultural practices that arguably run counter to the SDGs and UN Charter.
Controversial cultural practices often harm specific groups, particularly girls and women. In 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, communities perform Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the controversial practice of intentionally harming, cutting, or mutilating the genital organs of girls and women to limit sexual autonomy, despite UN resolutions attempting to end this practice. Cultural practices such as early marriage, wherein girls are often forced to marry much older men, and dowries, which the bride’s family pays to the groom’s family, also limit the autonomy of girls and women. In addition, many cultural practices, such as encouraging girls to bear children and employing traditional rather than evidence-based modern medicine, contribute to increased maternal mortality. Lastly, some communities strongly prefer sons over daughters, reducing opportunities available to girls and women and often leading to female infanticide.
Other controversial cultural practices, such as engaging in illegal wildlife trade and ritual slaughter, can endanger animal welfare. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which nearly all UN member states have become party to since it took effect in 1975, restricts international trade in certain wild animals and plants. However, communities across the world continue to illegally hunt protected animals and traffick in animal by-products such as elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, shark fins, pangolin scales, and manta ray gills. In 1982, the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on whaling except for indigenous peoples on a subsistence basis. In addition, halal and kosher food preparation, traditional practices in Islam and Judaism, have created controversy because they involve ritual slaughter that allegedly causes animals unnecessary suffering. Ritual slaughter involves reciting a prayer and slitting the animal’s throat, often without stunning the animal beforehand and therefore potentially exposing the animal to pain. Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Australia require animals to be stunned before ritual slaughter and Slovenia has banned ritual slaughter.
This body must decide on appropriate ways to address the controversies that arise from cultural practices, including those affecting animal welfare, such as Spanish-style bullfighting, and specific groups, such as caregivers who are expected to maintain intimate contact while caring for and burying victims of diseases. At the same time, some respect must be paid to cultural norms and national sovereignty. It will be your responsibility to strike this balance.