In what was probably a first for the United Nations, delegates to the Human Rights Council heard two Muslims describe Islamism as “Racism” and tell their listeners that the OIC does not speak for the majority of the world’s Muslims. Danish MP and leader of the Liberal Alliance Naser Khader, and Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress were eloquent in their denunciation of the OIC, its Saudi paymasters, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The conference was widely reported, including in the Pakistan Daily Times
The conference speeches are available here:
The Conference, billed as “An analysis and Discussion of Religion and Freedom of Expression at the Human Rights Council” was held on 17 September 2008 and chaired by Roy Brown, IHEU main representative, UN Geneva.
Two years ago, the then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, famously stated that: “Rightly understood, there is no conflict between freedom expression and freedom of religion”. In the past two years, however, events both outside and within the United Nations have led us to question just how widely that truth is understood.
A resolution “combating defamation of religions” was first introduced by the OIC in 1999 in the old Commission for Human Rights and has been adopted every year since – by the Commission and now by the Human Rights Council. Then in December last year the resolution was adopted by the UN General Assembly by a two to one majority. Now while the resolution is not binding on member states, it has created a framework in which it becomes legitimate for States to introduce (or where they have them already – to keep) laws combating defamation of religion: that is, blasphemy laws – laws which, I need not to remind you, some states apply with deadly effect. Rather than moving to eliminate such laws the UN is now complicit in creating an environment in which such laws can thrive.
In March this year, the Council adopted a resolution which modified the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression to require him (or her) not only to report on violations of that right but to report on abuse of that freedom. In the words of one commentator, “it has turned the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on its head”.
These recent moves are by no means novel. Attempts to cater for Islamic exceptionalism in human rights go back a long way – at least as far back as the Iranian revolution of 1979. The first really successful attempt to codify this exceptionalism came in 1990 with the adoption by the foreign ministers of the OIC of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. On Human Rights Day, 10 December 2007, the Pakistani Ambassador, speaking in the Council on behalf of the OIC, claimed that this document did not represent an alternative world view but was complementary to the UDHR. In March this year, at the 7th session of the Council, we called that claim into question, pointing out that the Cairo Declaration makes no reference to the UDHR but states quite clearly that Sharia law shall be the only source of reference to the rights contained therein. We issued a written statement to the Council, copies of which are available here, which explains this point. But when we attempted to point this out during a general debate, we were stopped on a point of order by the Pakistani delegate who said, and I quote: “It is insulting to our faith to discuss the Sharia in this forum”. The implication being that the OIC could promote the Cairo Declaration but that no one could be permitted to criticize its basis in the Sharia as the source of its incompatibility with the Universal Declaration.
In June this year, during the 8th session of the Council, we attempted to make an oral statement on violence against women. Our statement was interrupted by no fewer than 16 points of order, the majority of which were from the Egyptian and Pakistani delegates. They objected before were able to present the statement, that a) it had been heard before (it had not) and that it linked Egypt, Sudan and Pakistan to Sharia law. It did not. Canada and Slovenia (speaking for the European Union) argued that the issue was whether an NGO should be allowed to speak on the agenda item, and saw no reason why it should not. The Egyptian delegate responded, saying “What we are talking now is not about the right of NGOs to speak but about the Sharia law and whether it is admissible to discuss it in this Council. I appeal to my colleague from Slovenia not to accept any discussion of the Sharia law in this Council because it will not happen. And we will not take this lightly” He then attempted to force a vote on the issue. The president, H.E. Doru Costea of Romania, then adjourned the meeting for half an hour for “consultations”. When he returned he gave his ruling that “this Council is not prepared to discuss religious matters in depth. Consequently we should not do it”. Furthermore, “As long as a statement is made with restraint from making a judgement, or an evaluation, of a particular set of legislation, which is not in the point of our discussion, the speaker may continue”.
Now, the subject of our statement was not religion but human rights abuse justified by reference to Sharia law. Nevertheless, given the president’s ruling, we felt unable to make any further reference to Sharia in our statement.
The problem we were faced with is that many human rights abuses are permitted – or are even required punishments – under the religiously-based laws of the States concerned. Does this mean, as the States in question claim, that these laws must be beyond criticism in the Council? It would seem that this point was in fact conceded by the President of the Council. What is going on here?
To help us answer that question we have with us today, four distinguished speakers:
Naser Khader is the founder of Democratic Muslims of Denmark, Member of the Danish Parliament, and leader of the Liberal Alliance;
Walid Phares is an advisor to the Trans Atlantic Legislative Group on Jihadism and a visiting fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. He is author of The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy and a number of other books.
Tarek Fatah is the founder and former chair of the Muslim Canadian Congress. He is a , writer and broadcaster, and author of Chasing a Mirage: the Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State.
Austin Dacey is ther main representative of the Center for Inquiry at the UN New York, and author of The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.