Human Rights: Universal or Islamic?

Ongoing attempts over the years by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) — speaking at the UN Commission on Human Rights — to sponsor an Islamic Charter 'in accordance with the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam' (1990) are a direct challenge to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially its article 19: 'the right to freedom of opinion and expression.'

The following statement was delivered at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on 24 August by David G. Littman — speaking on behalf of the Association for World Education — the last NGO speaker at the 58th session of the UN Sub—Commission on Human Right, under item 3: 'administration of justice, rule of law and democracy.' It was circulated to its 26 members, to participants and the media.

Sir, we found Mr Vladimir Kartashkin's Working Paper, 'Human rights and State sovereignty,' most instructive and wish to raise an aspect that we consider crucial to the debate. This concerns the establishment — since the 1945 UN Charter — of 'a broad list of principles and norm of international law which acquired a generally recognized erga omnes character' — for States, and: 'This process was intensified after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the international human rights covenants.'

In this context, last Friday's statement to the Commission by Pakistan's Ambassador Masood Khan, on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC),is significant, particularly his conclusion,

'Last year in Makkah, the OIC announced its 10—year programme for the promotion and protection of human rights. It will also elaborate [an] OIC Charter on Human Rights.'

Ambassador Khan was clearly referring to the Final Communiqué of the Third Extraordinary Session of the Islamic Summit, held in Mecca from 7—8 December 2005 that provided a message on the question of the UDHR, the Cairo Declaration, and UN Human Rights organizations. There it is stated that,

'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 to interact with the United Nations and other relevant international bodies.'

In a 4 February 2006 press release by the OIC Secretariat's Observatory on Islamophobia, we read about

'the consistent pattern and continuity of sacrilege and blasphemy being committed in the name of freedom of speech by some publications in Europe.'

This followed a statement on 18 January by OIC Secretary—General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who

'denounced and strongly disapproved the recurrence of the publication of blasphemous and insulting caricatures of Prophet Mohammed...'

He considered that these

'misguided Islamophobic acts, by deeply hurting the feelings of one fifth of the humanity, go beyond the freedom of expression or press and they violate international principles, values and ethics enshrined in the various resolutions and declarations of the United Nations. Unfortunately acts of sacrilege of the holy Islamic symbols harm and contradict various efforts and initiatives aiming at contributing to the entrenchment of an atmosphere of dialogue among civilizations, cultures and religions, including the UN adopted OIC initiative, 'Dialogue among Civilizations.'... '

One passage says it all:

'It is the common sense that Islamophobic acts, which are also against the internationally promoted common values, can not and should not be condoned in the pretext of freedom of expression or press. The principle of freedom of expression can not be promoted by offensively hurting and trampling on the sincere religious beliefs of millions of people.'

There have been many more such declarations that time limitations do not allow us to cite today.

Sir, six years ago (14 September 2000), the Association for World Education received a legal response [addressed to René Wadlow and David G. Littman] from the Special Assistant to Mary Robinson (then High Commissioner for Human Rights) to our request. It read,

'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 by the erga omnes obligations under customary international law.'

That clear legal answer from the High Commissioner's Office concerned our enquiry about 'The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam' being the last document in A Compilation of International Instruments: Volume II — Regional Instruments. Soon after its publication by the UNCHR in late 1997, Vol. II was circulated to all members of this Sub—Commission on Human Rights at the request of one of its members [Ms. Halima Embarak Warzazi] and The Cairo Declaration was soon after cited in the preamble to Resolution 1998/17, in these terms as a reaction to the Taliban's intolerance on the Situation of Women in Afghanistan,

'Fully aware that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1990, guarantees the rights of women in all fields...' 

Sir, that's quite a generalization — when the mention of the 'rights of women', under article 6 (a) of the Cairo Declaration, merely states that

"Woman is equal to man in human dignity, and has rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform..."

But these "rights to enjoy" are "subject to the Islamic Shariah" (art. 24), and article 25 states clerarly:

"The Islamic Shariah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any articles of this Declaration."

Thus, "rights" and "duties" of women are prescribed by shari'a law in which there is no 'equality' between Muslim men and women or Muslims & non—Muslims.   

These new rules of conduct being imposed over the past years and acceded to by many States — often through umbrella organizations such as the OIC — for political or 'diplomatic' reasons have no legal basis and no precedent. These rules give cause for grave apprehension regarding the administration of justice, the rule of law — one may well ask: which law? — and democracy, as understood in the International Bill of Human Rights. Will discussion about political issues within certain States now be prohibited at the United Nations, thus contradicting "the right to freedom of opinion and expression" enshrined in article 19 of the UDHR? Unless the right to freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed, this precious liberty — a pillar of international law — risks erosion in international organizations.

David G. Littman is an historian, and Representative to the United Nations (Geneva) of the Association for World Education, an NGO

Ongoing attempts over the years by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) — speaking at the UN Commission on Human Rights — to sponsor an Islamic Charter 'in accordance with the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam' (1990) are a direct challenge to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially its article 19: 'the right to freedom of opinion and expression.'

The following statement was delivered at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on 24 August by David G. Littman — speaking on behalf of the Association for World Education — the last NGO speaker at the 58th session of the UN Sub—Commission on Human Right, under item 3: 'administration of justice, rule of law and democracy.' It was circulated to its 26 members, to participants and the media.

Sir, we found Mr Vladimir Kartashkin's Working Paper, 'Human rights and State sovereignty,' most instructive and wish to raise an aspect that we consider crucial to the debate. This concerns the establishment — since the 1945 UN Charter — of 'a broad list of principles and norm of international law which acquired a generally recognized erga omnes character' — for States, and: 'This process was intensified after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the international human rights covenants.'

In this context, last Friday's statement to the Commission by Pakistan's Ambassador Masood Khan, on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC),is significant, particularly his conclusion,

'Last year in Makkah, the OIC announced its 10—year programme for the promotion and protection of human rights. It will also elaborate [an] OIC Charter on Human Rights.'

Ambassador Khan was clearly referring to the Final Communiqué of the Third Extraordinary Session of the Islamic Summit, held in Mecca from 7—8 December 2005 that provided a message on the question of the UDHR, the Cairo Declaration, and UN Human Rights organizations. There it is stated that,

'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 to interact with the United Nations and other relevant international bodies.'

In a 4 February 2006 press release by the OIC Secretariat's Observatory on Islamophobia, we read about

'the consistent pattern and continuity of sacrilege and blasphemy being committed in the name of freedom of speech by some publications in Europe.'

This followed a statement on 18 January by OIC Secretary—General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who

'denounced and strongly disapproved the recurrence of the publication of blasphemous and insulting caricatures of Prophet Mohammed...'

He considered that these

'misguided Islamophobic acts, by deeply hurting the feelings of one fifth of the humanity, go beyond the freedom of expression or press and they violate international principles, values and ethics enshrined in the various resolutions and declarations of the United Nations. Unfortunately acts of sacrilege of the holy Islamic symbols harm and contradict various efforts and initiatives aiming at contributing to the entrenchment of an atmosphere of dialogue among civilizations, cultures and religions, including the UN adopted OIC initiative, 'Dialogue among Civilizations.'... '

One passage says it all:

'It is the common sense that Islamophobic acts, which are also against the internationally promoted common values, can not and should not be condoned in the pretext of freedom of expression or press. The principle of freedom of expression can not be promoted by offensively hurting and trampling on the sincere religious beliefs of millions of people.'

There have been many more such declarations that time limitations do not allow us to cite today.

Sir, six years ago (14 September 2000), the Association for World Education received a legal response [addressed to René Wadlow and David G. Littman] from the Special Assistant to Mary Robinson (then High Commissioner for Human Rights) to our request. It read,

'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 by the erga omnes obligations under customary international law.'

That clear legal answer from the High Commissioner's Office concerned our enquiry about 'The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam' being the last document in A Compilation of International Instruments: Volume II — Regional Instruments. Soon after its publication by the UNCHR in late 1997, Vol. II was circulated to all members of this Sub—Commission on Human Rights at the request of one of its members [Ms. Halima Embarak Warzazi] and The Cairo Declaration was soon after cited in the preamble to Resolution 1998/17, in these terms as a reaction to the Taliban's intolerance on the Situation of Women in Afghanistan,

'Fully aware that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1990, guarantees the rights of women in all fields...' 

Sir, that's quite a generalization — when the mention of the 'rights of women', under article 6 (a) of the Cairo Declaration, merely states that

"Woman is equal to man in human dignity, and has rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform..."

But these "rights to enjoy" are "subject to the Islamic Shariah" (art. 24), and article 25 states clerarly:

"The Islamic Shariah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any articles of this Declaration."

Thus, "rights" and "duties" of women are prescribed by shari'a law in which there is no 'equality' between Muslim men and women or Muslims & non—Muslims.   

These new rules of conduct being imposed over the past years and acceded to by many States — often through umbrella organizations such as the OIC — for political or 'diplomatic' reasons have no legal basis and no precedent. These rules give cause for grave apprehension regarding the administration of justice, the rule of law — one may well ask: which law? — and democracy, as understood in the International Bill of Human Rights. Will discussion about political issues within certain States now be prohibited at the United Nations, thus contradicting "the right to freedom of opinion and expression" enshrined in article 19 of the UDHR? Unless the right to freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed, this precious liberty — a pillar of international law — risks erosion in international organizations.

David G. Littman is an historian, and Representative to the United Nations (Geneva) of the Association for World Education, an NGO