Yesterday was the 60th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). The UN planned a big celebration, presenting seven awards to international figures who have made a mark in the human rights field this past year. One of the awards was posthumously earmarked to Benazir Bhutto, an advocate for true democracy in Pakistan assassinated during her campaign for Prime Minister.
Great strides have been made in the progress for human rights since the UNDHR was drafted. Yet, several Islamic countries, most notably the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), object. Instead, they are promoting the Cairo Declaration of Islamic Human Rights for Muslim-majority countries. Two NGO's have filed an appeal to the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, arguing that the Cairo Declaration and the UNDHR clash. They have requested an official ruling.
The UNDHR came into existence after WWII. When the Nazi atrocities perpetrated upon the Jews came to light, the world community realized that the UN Charter was not sufficiently specific to protect human rights. In response, the UNDHR was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN on December 10, 1948. It consists of 30 articles which cover a broad range of rights including social, political, economic and religious. Though not legally binding, the UNDHR is considered a foundational document in international human rights law. It has inspired the development of 50 human rights instruments around the globe including international treaties, national constitutions, and regional human rights laws.
The bedrock beliefs embedded in the UNDHR are the inherent dignity and equality of all, as well as the right to liberty and the brotherhood of all humanity. The document omits any mention of specific religions, but presumes that all religions and cultures are equal. It promotes equality between men and women, and requires that the human rights of children be protected.
So, what's not to like? According to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, and the other countries comprising the OIC, the UNDHR fails to take into account the "cultural and religious context of Islamic countries". Indeed, in 1981, the Iranian Representative to the UN construed the UNDHR to be a "secular interpretation of a Judeo-Christian tradition which can't be implemented without trespassing on Islamic law." In June 2000, the OIC resolved to support the Cairo Declaration as an alternative.
So, what's the Cairo Declaration? The pre-cursor to the Cairo Declaration was the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, first proclaimed in the 1980's by the Islamic Council at the International Conference on the Prophet Mohammad and His Message. The document was rooted in the belief that Allah alone is the law giver and the source of all laws. It espoused that the State has an obligation to establish an Islamic order, and that all laws must be based on the Qu'ran and the Sunnah, as compiled by Muslim scholars, jurists, and representatives of various Islamic movements.
Many of these ideas were finalized in the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Islamic Human Rights (Cairo). 54 Muslim-majority countries signed the document that year. Many of these countries had abstained from the first vote on the UNDHR. The strategy of abstaining rather than voting in opposition to UNDHR, allowed these countries to uphold the false appearance of supporting human rights, while at the same time precluding a sufficient number of yes votes necessary for the UNDHR to pass.
How does Cairo stack up to the UNDHR? Cairo, unlike the UNDHR is anything but a religion-neutral document. On the contrary, it overtly asserts that Islam is superior over other religions, and that the Islamic ummah is the "best nation". It cites the Muslim community's role in guiding "a humanity confused by competing trends and ideologies", and claims that Islam is the solution to man's "chronic problems of this materialistic civilization." It lists separate rights for men and women rather than advocating for general equality. It precludes the State from taking a life or perpetrating bodily harm except as allowed by Sharia (Islamic law). It entitles everyone to a State-funded Islamic education even if they are not Muslim, but refuses to fund education in any other religion. Freedom of expression is restricted by Islamic interpretation, and blasphemy is forbidden. Most ominously, Articles 24 and 25 assert that all interpretations of the so-called rights stipulated in the Cairo Declaration, must be interpreted through the eyes of Sharia law. Sharia is cited as the sole source of reference allowable for explanation and clarification of all articles in the Declaration. Therefore, the entire document and all the rights and freedoms contained therein, are in fact, limited to those which are in accordance with the Islamic Sharia.
In short, the Cairo Declaration is a religious document. It is not the rights of the individual that are protected, but the best interest of the Islamic Ummah (community). It pits Muslims against non-Muslims and discriminates against women. It allows stoning for adultery, amputation for theft, and the death penalty for blasphemy. Its freedom of religion does not include the freedom to leave Islam, and the proselytizing of other religions or of atheism is strictly forbidden. Freedom of expression and freedom to obtain information cannot be of a nature that weakens the faith of the Islamic society. It is no coincidence that many of the enumerated "rights" are not rights at all, but are actually limitations on rights and freedoms. Therefore, the Cairo Declaration cannot reasonably be interpreted as a declaration of human rights. It is more accurately a statement of obligations which are required to submit to the will of Allah.
The Cairo Declaration of Islamic Human Rights holds a misleading title. By limiting the rights otherwise guaranteed by the UNDHR and confining rights to those permitted by Sharia law, the Cairo Declaration undermines the very rights it purports to protect. In a world where radical Muslims are at war with Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Christians in the Sudan and moderate Muslims in their own countries, the Secretary General of the OIC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, still insists that Islamophobia is one of the root causes of the world's violence and instability. Further, he claims that Israel is the world's main human rights oppressor.
The OIC diligently works to enforce oppressive measures in Muslim lands and expand Islamic supremacy around the globe. Yet, the OIC Secretary General still has the audacity to request that the 60th anniversary of the UNDHR be used to engage in dialogue with countries of "different viewpoints and religions" in an atmosphere of "mutual respect and tolerance." In other words, the OIC, arch enemy of human rights, is demanding tolerance for the intolerant, and respect for the disrespectful.
What is the reason that the OIC refuses to support the UNDHR? Does Islam conflict with fundamental human rights, basic freedoms and western values? Many moderate Muslims around the globe claim that it does not. But the leaders of the OIC insist that it does.