New team attacks religious privilege at the UN

  • Date / 23 September 2008

After ploughing our lonely furrow at the Human Rights Council for the past five years, often with only the colourful veteran Human Rights advocate David Littman for company, it was a pleasure to welcome three new additions to the team for the 9th session of the Human Rights Council: Austin Dacey and Hugo Estrella from CfI and our new intern Xavier Cornut.

David has done sterling work for over 20 years at the various human rights bodies in Geneva. His memories go back to welcoming Soviet dissidents Nathan Shransky and Southern Sudanese leader John Garang to the Human Rights Commission. As representative of the World Union for Progressive Judaism he has stood firm on his opposition to Hamas and the cult of Jihad without falling into the trap of supporting Israel right or wrong. For some years he has also represented the Association for World Education and the Association for World Citizens with whom IHEU have made a number of joint written and oral statements. David was first off the block this session on 9 September with a joint statement on behalf of AWE and IHEU defending the universality of human rights and quoting Spinoza against those who claim that God’s laws – i.e. their own laws – must take precedence over the laws of the State. David spoke again on 19 September with a strong statement on violence against women.

Austin Dacey is a philosopher by profession and has represented CfI at the UN in New York since they obtained their accreditation last year. He is attending the 9th session of the Human Rights Council in company with Hugo Estrellia from CfI, Italy. At the parallel conference on Religion and Freedom of Expression at the Human Rights Council organized by IHEU on 17 September, Austin launched a critique of Islamic interpretations of human rights, and will present a joint oral statement with IHEU on defamation of religion at the Council on 23 September.

Hugo Estrella, who has been a ferocious opponent of religious privilege in his native Argentina, presented a joint statement on behalf of CfI and IHEU on the denial of women’s right, such as the right to abortion, in countries in which these right are legal in principle but denied in practice. Hugo’s text in Spanish and English is available on this web site.

Xavier Cornut, our intern for the 9th session of the Council, prepared and delivered a joint statement on behalf of IHEU, AWE and CfI condemning the attack on a refugee camp in Darfur by Sudanese forces. Xavier spoke in French, and we have his text in French and English on this web site.

The 9th session of the Human Rights Council which runs from 8 to 24 September, has been particularly tense following the Council president’s decisions at the 7th and 8th sessions limiting our freedom of expression. As a precautionary measure we have shown a number of our texts to friendly ambassadors and NGO colleagues before presenting them to the Council. This pre-emptive self-censorship resulted in improvements to some of our drafts and probably saved us from running into OIC crossfire on more than one occasion. I revised my own draft on women’s rights and the need to oppose censorship in the Council following consultation with five other NGOs as well as the former Council president himself.

On Tuesday next, the OIC and the Council president willing, we will have a line-up of four oral statements attacking the concepts of defamation of religion and Islamophobia and defending freedom of expression.

Our conference on 17 September has made headlines from Denmark to Pakistan. The speeches by our two Muslim colleagues, Tarek Fatah and Naser Khader against Islamism and the OIC have been widely reported in the press and blogosphere.

It may sometimes seem that we are lonely voices crying in the wilderness, but there is no doubt that by being prepared to oppose the excesses of the OIC and the religious conservatives we have helped to gird the loins of some of the Western delegations. If eventually some Western governments are prepared to join us in our stand it will go someway to making the weeks of wasted time, the cost, and the stress worthwhile.

Roy Brown
IHEU Main Representative, UN Geneva
20 Sept 2008

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