Nobel laureates condemn non-democratic countries for human rights abuses

  • Date / 11 December 2008

An audience of nearly 1000 – diplomats, NGO representatives, academics and students – descended on the General Assembly Hall at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on Wednesday to celebrate Human Rights Day, the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Highlight of the afternoon were two presentations by Nobel laureates: Shirin Ebadi, Iranian Human Rights Lawyer and winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, and Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It was both refreshing and inspiring after the tedium of endless self-congratulatory sessions of the Human Rights Council, to hear two such highly respected speakers “telling it like it is”, naming and shaming the enemies of human rights; speeches that would have been immediately ruled out of out of order had they been delivered in the Human Rights Council. Rather than try to summarise the speeches myself, you can read the Reuters report below.

Also as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations the Palais des Nations is holding an exhibition of human rights cartoons (none incidentally from Denmark) but many of which point the finger unwaveringly at the real culprits in the war on human rights. A veteran member of the Geneva press corps remarked to me that he wondered how the organisers had managed to get the exhibition past the ever-watchful eyes of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

Roy Brown

Nobel laureates at UN hit Muslim states on rights

By Robert Evans

GENEVA, Dec 10 (Reuters) — Nobel laureates from Iran and Nigeria used a United Nations forum on Wednesday to condemn hardliners in power in some Muslim countries, and rulers of the world’s last communist states, as gross abusers of human rights.

The two, Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi and Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, also insisted that human rights as set out in the 1948 U.N. Declaration, were universal and could not be limited on the basis of culture or religion.

“Some people believe that the Declaration’s principles are based on Western standards and are not compatible with national or religious culture. Most non-democratic Islamic governments use this reasoning,” declared Ebadi.

In the Muslim world today, said Soyinka, “the fanatical, absolutist truth enforcers of our time” were responsible for bloodshed among different Islamic groups and suppression of ideas not in line with their own.

The two were delivering keynote addresses in a series of lectures marking the 60th anniversary of the 1948 declaration, whose principles many critics say are being undermined by an Islamic, African and communist bloc in the U.N. system.

The informal alliance — joined by Russia — is in effective control of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, where it has ensured that African and Islamic states, as well as Russia and communist-run Cuba and China, largely escape criticism.

The grouping — which also operates in the U.N. General Assembly in New York — has pushed through resolutions calling on states to ban “defamation of religion”, which Western countries say are aimed at limiting freedom of expression.


Ebadi and Soyinka also criticised the United States’ reaction to the September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, saying the Bush administration had used them to violate rights by invoking national security.

But — to a degree that surprised many diplomats and rights activists used to more cautious and bland speeches from U.N. platforms — they each focused separately on Islamic countries and on practices in some Muslim communities elsewhere.

“I was flabbergasted. I never expected to hear such forthright talk here,” said one representative of a non- governmental organisation who has been active at the U.N. in Geneva for 30 years.

Soyinka, Nobel Literature laureate in 1986, said the “cultural relativism” many argue has become dominant in the U.N. meant that non-Muslims “are asked to accept such barbarities as honour killings as justified by tradition.”

This stance — which critics say many governments in the West are adopting to avoid upsetting vocal religious and especially Muslim minorities — is evoked “to undermine or dismiss the universal nature of human rights,” he said.

Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for promoting the rights of women and children in Iran and is at odds with its government, said Muslim dictatorships used religion to underpin their own power.

The views of “enlightened Muslims” were dismissed, and any criticism of human rights violations and oppression of the people “is treated as criticism of religion itself and human rights defenders are accused of heresy,” she said.

“They say: ‘Our culture does not permit the exercise of dissent, or of other views — end of discussion,” said Soyinka. “‘Our culture, they tell the world, is different and our traditions sacrosanct’.”

Both said the rulers of officially atheist societies — like China and Cuba — abused that belief system too to perpetuate their power. “Atheism and belief in god are both used as an excuse for the oppression of people,” said Ebadi. (Editing by Tim Pearce)

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