Universality of Human Rights under attack at the UN

  • Date / 3 January 2008

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) representing the 56 Islamic States renewed its attack on the Universality of Human Rights at the 6th Session of the Human Rights Council that ended on 14 December.

On Human Rights Day, 10 December, Ambassador Masood Khan, speaking on behalf of the OIC, claimed that the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam

“.. is not an alternative, competing worldview on human rights. It complements the Universal Declaration as it addresses religious and cultural specificity of the Muslim countries”.

Not an alternative? Even a cursory reading of the Cairo Declaration shows just how widely its definition of human rights differs from those of the UDHR. No “complementary” document (the word implies adding to, not subtracting from) should restrict the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Yet this is precisely what the Cairo Declaration does. Under Shari’ah law a woman has no personal autonomy. A women’s word or the word of a non-Muslim counts as half that of a Muslim man; and they are valued as half that of a Muslim man. No woman is considered an autonomous individual but needs a guardian: her father, husband, son or another male relative, and may not make autonomous decisions. Freedom of religion is limited to freedom to become and remain a Muslim. Apostasy and any actions or statements considered blasphemous are harshly punished, in some states by death.

Ann Elizabeth Meijer in her classic analysis “Islam and Human Rights” describes the declaration as not so much a statement of human rights as a statement of man’s responsibilities towards God. According to Meyer (p66):

“International law does not accept that fundamental human rights may be restricted – much less permanently curtailed – by reference to the requirements of any particular religion. International law does not provide any warrant for depriving Muslims of human rights by according primacy to Islamic criteria.”

In the same speech to the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Khan said that “The OIC was considering the establishment of an independent permanent body to promote human rights in accordance with the provisions of the Cairo Declaration”, and he referred to a decision taken by the May 2007 Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers to work on an Islamic Charter of Human Rights, a convention of women’s rights in Islam and an Islamic Covenant against Racial Discrimination. Not an alternative?

Our attempted rebuttal

It was disappointing that no delegation was prepared to challenge the absurdity of Pakistan’s claim. IHEU in collaboration with one other NGO attempted to do so in the interactive dialogue the following day but our intervention was ruled “out of order” and our text stricken from the record.

Unwilling to let the matter rest, I joined David Littman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in writing to Louise Arbour, the High Commissioner for Human Rights (see full text below) requesting a legal ruling as to whether the proposed charter based on The Cairo declaration would conflict with the Universal Declaration. (See below for the full text.)

The elimination of discrimination based on religion or belief

On 14 December at the Human Rights Council Pakistan, again speaking for the OIC, raised objections to the resolution on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Despite many weeks of work seeking a compromise with the European Union on this, the OIC had been unable to accept the right to change one’s religion. This objection was also raised by Egypt, Malaysia and many other Islamic states. The resolution also called for the renewal for a further three years of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. South Africa objected to the renewal because they found it “inconceivable that her mandate could be silent on monitoring the role that may be played by the media in inciting religious hatred”.

In the event none of the states objecting to the resolution actually voted against – thereby maintaining the myth of their support for universal human rights. What they did do was abstain, safe in the knowledge that under the rules of procedure an abstention is as good as a vote against since to be adopted any resolution requires a majority of member states to vote in favour.

Defamation of Religion

In September 2007 the European Union had attempted to introduce a resolution in the Human Rights Council on the elimination of discrimination based on religion or belief, but its introduction was deferred until December in an attempt by the sponsors to obtain the support of the OIC. Despite quite intensive negotiations, however, it became clear that no agreement would be possible. On December 14, the Pakistani delegate, again speaking for the OIC, said that differences remained on five important issues, inter alia: respect for all religions and beliefs, and respect for national laws and religious norms about the right to change one’s religion. “Hence, we dissociate ourselves from operative paragraph 9(a) because of its phrase ‘including the right to change one’s religion or belief’”. Yet this right is clearly enshrined in Article 18 of the UDHR to which all but one of the Islamic states is signatory.

In the event none of the states objecting to the resolution actually voted against it – thereby maintaining the myth of their support for universal human rights. What they did do however was abstain, safe in the knowledge that in order to be adopted any resolution requires a majority of member states to vote in favour, and their abstentions were therefore equivalent to votes against the resolution. Despite this opposition the resolution was carried by 29 votes to 0, with 18 abstentions.

Defamation of Religion

On 18 December 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution “Combating Defamation of Religions” by 108 votes to 51 with 25 abstentions. Similar resolutions have been adopted for the past seven years by the old Commission for Human Rights and by the new Council. This is the first time, however, that such a resolution had been passed by the General Assembly. The resolution expresses “deep concern about the negative stereotyping of religions and manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in matters of religion or belief”. But the only religion mentioned by name is Islam. The resolution also notes with deep concern, “the intensification of the campaign to defame religions and the ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities in the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001”. It emphasises that whilst everyone has the right to freedom of expression, this should be exercised with responsibility – and may therefore be subject to limitations, inter alia “for respect for religions and beliefs”.

The Western delegations stood firm, however, in their opposition to this resolution. The Portuguese delegate, speaking for the EU, explained clearly why:

“The European Union does not see the concept of ‘defamation of religions’ as a valid one in a human rights discourse. From a human rights perspective, members of religious or belief communities should not be viewed as parts of homogenous entities. International human rights law protects primarily individuals in the exercise of their freedom of religion or belief, rather than the religions as such.”

Notwithstanding these objections, those opposing the resolution found themselves on the losing side of a two-to-one majority in favour. The implications of this resolution for freedom to criticise religious laws and practices are obvious. Armed with UN approval for their actions, states may now legislate against any show of disrespect for religion, however they may choose to define “disrespect”.

The Islamic states see human rights exclusively in Islamic terms, and by sheer weight of numbers this view is becoming dominant within the UN system. The implications for the universality of human rights are ominous.

Letter to Mrs. Louise Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights
20 December 2007

Your Excellency,

Primacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The message of OIC Secretary-General, Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, on the occasion of Human Rights Day has just come to our attention, and his statement is noteworthy. It reads, in part:

Respect of Human Rights through effective protection and promotion of equality, civil liberties and social justice is a milestone in the OIC Ten Year Plan of Action. In this regard the OIC General Secretariat is considering the establishment of [an] independent permanent body to promote Human Rights in the Member States in accordance with the provisions of the OIC Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and to elaborate an OIC Charter on Human Rights. The OIC is also committed to encourage its member States to reinforce their national laws and regulations in order to guaranty strict respect for Human Right[s].”

On Friday, 14 December, I handed to you the two statements we addressed to the Council on 11 December, one concerning Darfur, the other the primacy of the UDHR. We were however unable to complete the latter statement because of a procedural ruling by the President, Ambassador Toru Romulus da Costea, but it was officially circulated at the plenum with the Secretariat’s approval.
In this statement, we noted:

“We were surprised that Pakistan’s Ambassador Masood Khan, speaking yesterday morning on behalf of the OIC, claimed that the Cairo Declaration was “not an alternative competing worldview on human rights”, but failed to mention the shari’a law as “the only source of reference” (articles 24 and 25) in that same Declaration – the shari’a law where there is no equality between Muslim men and women, and between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

The Final Communiqué of the Third Extraordinary Session of the Islamic Summit held in Mecca on 7-8 December 2005 (…) provides a clear message regarding the UN system of human rights:

“The Conference called for considering the possibility of establishing an independent permanent body to promote human rights in Member States as well as the possibility in preparing an Islamic Charter on Human Rights in accordance with the provisions of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and interact with the United Nations and other relevant international bodies.”

We seriously question whether such a body would be “complementary” to the Human Rights Council or whether, given the wording of the Cairo Declaration, it will have shari’a law as its “only source of reference” and be seen as an alternative.

On 14 September 2000, in reply to a communication from the Association for World Education as to the “universality” of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (published in Volume II: Regional Instruments, OHCHR, 1997, pp. 477-84 of A Compilation of International Instruments), the legal advisor to the then HCHR replied:

“The Member States which have acceded to and ratified United Nations Human Rights Conventions remain bound, under all circumstances, by the provisions of those texts as well as the erge omnes obligations under customary international law.”

We are writing to you today to request an official ruling from your legal advisor as to whether the above official statement on Human Rights Day by the OIC Secretary General – in regard to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam and a future “Islamic Charter” based on shari’a law – would clash with the UDHR and the Universal Instruments (in, A Compilation.. Volume I, 1993).

Please accept our season’s greetings, and our sincere appreciation for your multifarious efforts in holding to the highest standards of human rights and in guiding the international community along that straight and narrow path toward an appreciation of the universality of the UDHR.


David G. Littman
WUPJ Representative to the UNO, Geneva

Roy W Brown
IHEU main representative, UN Geneva

Related Content

WordPress theme developer - whois: Andy White London