IHEU “ambushed” at Human Rights Council

  • Date / 14 March 2008

In a follow-up to IHEU’s written statement to the UN Human Rights Council describing Islamic efforts to undermine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Roy Brown, IHEU’s main representative at the UN in Geneva prepared an oral statement (below) for Council debate on 13 March 2008 but was prevented from giving it in full because of repeated objections from two Islamic delegations.

The prepared statement:
“Attempts to restrict freedom of expression and other human rights”

Mr President,

On Human Rights Day, 10 December 2007, the permanent representative of Pakistan, addressing the Human Rights Council on behalf of the OIC, [the 56 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference] spoke glowingly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noting the contribution made to its creation and to the two international covenants by many Muslim countries. He went on to state 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”. He also stated that the OIC is considering the creation of an Islamic Charter on Human Rights in accordance with the provisions
of the Cairo Declaration. [First interruption]

But, Mr President, it is difficult to see how the Cairo Declaration be considered complementary to the 1948 Universal Declaration. It makes no reference to the Universal Declaration, whilst Articles 24 and 25 of the Cairo Declaration explicitly state that:
[Second interruption]
“All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah”, and: “The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration.”

But under Shari’ah law, Muslim women and non-Muslims are not accorded equal treatment with Muslim men. The Shari’ah, therefore, fails to honour the right to equality guaranteed under the UDHR and the international covenants, and denies the full enjoyment of their human rights to those living in States which follow Shari’ah law. [Third and fourth interruptions – as a result of which, and following the President’s comments, Brown felt obliged to skip the next two paragraphs and move straight to his concluding sentence]

Regarding freedom of expression, the Cairo Declaration makes clear that whilst information is vital it may not be used “to weaken faith”. Article 22 states that:
(a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.
(b) Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Shari’ah.
(c) Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may [inter alia] harm society or weaken its faith.

This, Mr President, restricts freedom of expression and elevates faith above human rights.

[Statement continued here]
We urge States to consider very carefully the negative implications for the universality of human rights, and of the derogation from the international covenants, implicit in the Cairo Declaration and the plans of the OIC.

Thank you, sir

Points of Order
The first interruption on a “point of order” came from the Egyptian delegate who objected to any mention of the Islamic Charter of Human Rights because, he said, he was unable to find any mention of this matter on the agenda. (Hardly surprising since this was a general debate on the promotion and protection of human rights). The chairman over-ruled this objection but Brown was interrupted again within seconds, this time for having moved on to discussing the Cairo Declaration. He did not think it was open to reconsider documents adopted in 1999. The president responded by pointing out that we constantly refer to the Universal Declaration adopted 60 years ago and we do not have any objections to doing so. He suggested that the argument used “was in need of being reconsidered” and again asked Brown to continue. But within seconds Brown was interrupted yet again, this time by both the Egyptian and Pakistani delegates. The Pakistani said “we are not discussing here the Islamic Sharia”. It is a controversial subject – the balance between freedom of expression and freedom of religion. We are still discussing it in informal session. “It is insulting for our faith to discuss Shari’ah here in this forum”. The Egyptian representative then stated that “Sharia is not under discussion here and I do not believe it is a document that should be discussed in the Human Rights Council.” The president expressed himself to be fully aware of the informal consultations that were going on, but took the point of the Egyptian representative regarding the Sharia law and asked that the NGO should refrain from making judgements or evaluations on this particular “court of legislation” and to “revert to statements made in this room on other issues”. Brown then saw no option but to skip the next part of his statement, saying: Thank you, Mr President. I was attempting to speak in the context of potential restrictions on freedom of expression which have been discussed in this room. But I will move forward and merely suggest, indeed urge States to consider very carefully the negative implications for the universality of human rights, and the derogation from the international covenants, which are implicit in the Cairo Declaration and the plans of the OIC”. Thank you Sir.

You can see the whole sorry event on video here.

Negative consequences
Continuing interruptions have a negative effect on any statement because the audience quickly becomes absorbed by the interruptions, and both speaker and audience can quickly lose track of the speaker’s argument. Worse, the speaker is often reduced to simply stating his main conclusion without being able to provide his supporting evidence. In this case, without the benefit of the quotations from the Cairo Declaration, a well-reasoned argument was reduced to sounding like mere polemics. Objections also act as a warning to others against raising sensitive issues and have a chilling effect on those who might wish to cover similar ground. No doubt all of these effects are well understood by the Islamic delegates.

More worrying still are the implications for rational discussion of Islamic interpretations of human rights. Any criticism, indeed, any discussion of Shari’ah law at the Human Rights Council is now considered an “insult to Islam”. The problem is the extremely close relationship between Islam as a faith, and Sharia as a system of law which holds such a central position in that religion. The continuing efforts by the Islamic states at the Human Rights Council, in the UN General Assembly and elsewhere to silence “defamation” of religion can be seen in this context. Should these efforts succeed, any criticism of the Shari’ah, of its entrenched inequalities or brutal punishments, will be condemned as defamation of Islam. Rational discussion – indeed any mention of the Shari’ah – will have become impossible.

For the time being, then, the Islamic States can continue to pretend that Islamic declarations of human rights are compatible with international standards. But that claim should seen for what it is.

“When we want to know about human rights we do not go to the UN, we go to the Holy Qur’an”. Ayatollah Khomeni.

The continuing struggle
Unwelcome though censorship at the Human Rights Council might be, it was not entirely unexpected following the extensive coverage of IHEU’s written statement in the media during the preceding 24 hours. The report by Reuters, for example, had been widely read. http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSL1277265220080312?feedType=RSS&feedName=worldNews&rpc=22&sp=true

Brown believes the whole incident was an ambush. “No doubt forewarned by our written statement they decided to stop us. But IHEU will continue to campaign at the UN and elsewhere for the human rights of all people, and against any attempt to weaken or undermine them.”

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