The Human Rights Council refuses to address the abuse of women in Muslim countries under sharia.
Warrick Page/Panos PicturesThe Human Rights Council refuses to address the abuse of women in Muslim countries under sharia.

In December 2006, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an international group established in 1969 and representing 57 countries, hosted an emergency summit in Mecca. The event became infamous after two angry imams from Denmark presented a dossier of cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that mocked the Prophet Mohammed. In the ensuing uproar, Muslims murdered several people in Europe and torched the Danish embassy in Beirut.

But the cartoon episode wasn’t the summit’s starkest example of Muslim outrage over free speech. The most critical decision that the OIC made in Mecca was to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward perceived insults to Islam. In its “Ten-Year Programme of Action,” the OIC announced that it would create an “observatory” to monitor acts of “Islamophobia.” It would also “endeavor to have the United Nations adopt an international resolution to counter Islamophobia, and call upon all States to enact laws to counter it, including deterrent punishments”—essentially the goal of its nonbinding UN resolution on “combating defamation of religions,” which the UN’s General Assembly adopted in March 2008. And it would “participate and coordinate effectively in all regional and international forums, in order to protect and promote the collective interests of the Muslim Ummah, including UN reform [and] expanding the Security Council membership.”

The goal was simple: to infiltrate and weaken secular democratic covenants and institutions from within, in a manner reminiscent of revolutionary Marxist groups’ “entryism” into the British Labour Party in the seventies and eighties. The OIC’s plan for implementing its Islamist agenda hasn’t succeeded on all fronts, of course. But it has succeeded spectacularly on one: the United Nations Human Rights Council.

A subsidiary of the General Assembly, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) was reconstituted from the ashes of the previous Commission on Human Rights. The 60-year-old commission had long been criticized for ignoring atrocities and allowing membership to notorious human rights violators—most notably, Sudan at the height of the Darfur genocide. In 2006, the General Assembly, backed by then–secretary general Kofi Annan, voted to scrap the commission.

The HRC was formed that March by a UN resolution, though the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau voted against it. The U.S. at present does not occupy a seat on the council because of the Bush administration’s skeptical view that the HRC would prove just as ineffectual and biased as the former commission. Bush did license American aid to the HRC, but in September 2007 the U.S. Senate voted to cut that off, too.

In late March, however, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. would seek a seat during the upcoming HRC elections in May. According to Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the UN, “The U.S. is seeking election to the council because we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights.”

This is going to be a daunting, if not hopeless, task. In its three-year existence, the HRC has failed to show any improvement over its predecessor—an unsurprising outcome, given its equally lax membership standards. Of the HRC’s 47 member states, only 23 live up to Freedom House’s definition of “free” countries. Fourteen qualify as “partly free” and ten are “not free,” with three of these—China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia—earning a spot in Freedom House’s special report The Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies. China, Cuba, and Pakistan haven’t even ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the primary legally binding human rights instrument in international law.

The HRC has no legal authority. It passes nonbinding resolutions on what it decides are human rights abuses and can only make recommendations to the General Assembly. Nevertheless, its resolutions enjoy the UN imprimatur, and it can legitimize barbarities simply by ignoring them. If a dictator can claim in the international media that the HRC has passed no resolutions against him, his job of maintaining the status quo and lobbying against intervention in his country’s affairs becomes that much easier.

Delegates to the General Assembly elect states to the HRC by secret ballot. But since regional “groups,” like African states and Asian states, automatically get a set number of seats on the HRC, the upshot is that Islamic countries, together with non-Islamic members of the Non-Aligned Movement, always control about two-thirds of the seats. As Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union puts it: “Voting, when it does occur, invariably results in a two-to-one defeat for the Western liberal democracies.”

No wonder the HRC has ignored some of the most gruesome atrocities in the world. In 2007, it voted to remove its own human rights investigators from Cuba and Belarus and now relies on official state evidence—and, where available, countervailing evidence provided by nonprofits—to adjudicate abuses in those notorious countries. The HRC took the same decision of malign neglect in 2006, when Belarus, under the dictatorship of the Soviet holdover Alexander Lukashenko, jailed political dissidents and rigged its national elections. In December 2007, the HRC responded to the genocide in Darfur by recalling its team of monitors from the region, an unconscionable betrayal that came after Sudan’s chief accomplices, Egypt and China, applied pressure in council sessions. A Canadian proposal asking for war-crimes charges against those responsible for the Darfur genocide was rejected in the HRC last year, despite the UN’s own fact-finding reports implicating the Khartoum regime in mass murder, torture, and rape. The HRC’s sole acknowledgment of the genocide has been to echo the justifications of war criminals throughout history and blame “all parties.”

It is notable that five out of the council’s ten special sessions have been called to deal with Israeli actions, while not a single resolution has gone on the books condemning crimes perpetrated by China, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, or, for that matter, Hamas and Hezbollah. In fact, one of the HRC’s most headline-grabbing moments came in March 2007, when Hillel Neuer of the Geneva-based organization UN Watch presented a trenchant indictment of the council itself for its singular focus on the Jewish state. It marked the first time that the HRC had ever refused to thank a speaker for his statement, as its president at the time, Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico, proudly pointed out. (Speakers who have been thanked include Cuban representatives claiming that reports of dissident persecution were false; a Nigerian representative saying that “stoning under sharia law for unnatural sexual acts should not be equated with extrajudicial killings”; and an Iranian representative defending her country’s Holocaust-denial conference.)

But the HRC’s most destructive acts to date, undercutting its entire raison d’être, have come as the result of the OIC’s Mecca summit. This March, for example, the HRC adopted a resolution proposed by Pakistan and sponsored by the OIC, entitled “Combating the Defamation of Religions.” Passed by a margin of 23 votes in favor, 11 against, and 13 abstentions, the resolution defines any intellectual or moral criticism of religion—read: Islam—as a human rights violation, arguing that since 9/11, the world has seen an “intensification of the overall campaign of defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general.” The resolution expresses “deep concern” that “extremist organizations and groups” seek to create and perpetuate “stereotypes about certain religions.” It goes on to urge states to “deny impunity” to those guilty of words or deeds that the HRC deems overly critical of religion, and it wants governments to ensure that religious symbols “are fully respected and protected.”

The HRC’s resolution disturbingly misapplies the term “defamation,” the act of harming a reputation by libel or slander. Bodies of beliefs, opinions, and symbols cannot be “defamed,” according to any court of law; only living individuals can. The European Union, along with India and Canada, strongly assailed this endorsement of censorship, as did 207 nongovernmental organizations, including three from Muslim countries.

The resolution had been anticipated in another HRC action in 2008, and again the OIC was the driving force. At the body’s seventh session, Canada had proposed to renew the mandate of the HRC’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Expression, an office charged with protecting free speech and cataloging instances of its denial. On March 28, 2008, every OIC member state sitting on the HRC—joined by China, Russia, and Cuba—advanced an amendment to the original mandate. The Special Rapporteur would now, these members suggested, have to report not only violations of free expression but also “instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination” (our italics). Islam would thus be placed beyond scrutiny or censure, while people suffering at the hands of its most reactionary exponents—should they live to complain about it—would find themselves written down in the Special Rapporteur’s little black book.

During the discussion that ensued, some Islamic states claimed that if they refused to limit free expression, domestic extremists would run riot, and the Danish cartoon row would become an everyday occurrence. The opponents of the amendment, naturally, were advocates of universality in law and liberty: members of the European Union, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Switzerland. Nevertheless, the amendment was adopted in a vote of 27 to 17, with three abstentions. The amended resolution then passed, 32 to zero, with 15 abstentions.

Impressively, international reaction was swift and condemnatory. “It is very concerning in a Council which should be . . . the guardian of freedom of expression, to see constraints or taboos, or subjects that become taboo for discussion,” said the outgoing UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour of Canada. Forty organizations signed a petition protesting the amendment. Among the signatories were groups working in Islamic countries, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Darfur Bar Association, the Egyptian Association for the Support of Democratic Development, and the Pakistan Press Foundation.

As the petition noted, the United Nations already contained a body, the Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to perform the duty now redundantly assigned to the Special Rapporteur. Further, the amendment cast a sacrosanct Enlightenment principle in a negative light. Free expression is often the sine qua non for ensuring racial and religious equality, and yet here it was being interpreted as an impediment to that equality. Finally, the amendment’s prolix language confused the import of previous covenants, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which allows the restriction of free expression only to protect individuals, not to protect philosophies, religious traditions, or abstract dogmas. “Religious believers have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs,” the petition noted, “but religion itself cannot be set free from criticism.” Nowhere is it stipulated in any legitimate human rights document that giving offense or challenging conventional wisdom is off limits in oratory, journalism, literature, or art.

The HRC’s promotion of what are, in effect, blasphemy taboos is a logical extension of its internal policy. The HRC is run like an oligarchy governed by Orwellian speech codes, with any criticism of the body’s behavior immediately stifled in session. In March 2008 testimony to the HRC, for instance, Roy Brown mentioned that the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam—passed and ratified by the OIC in 1990—took sharia as its legal premise and was inimical to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Brown was challenging a claim made by Masood Khan, Pakistan’s UN ambassador, who had told the council, on behalf of the OIC, that the Cairo Declaration was a “complement” rather than an alternative to the Universal Declaration. Immediately, Imran Ahmed Siddiqui, the HRC delegate from Pakistan, issued a point of order, silencing Brown, and announced: “It is insulting to our faith to discuss sharia here in this forum.” The president of the council at the time, Doru Costea of Romania, ceded the point to Siddiqui.

Another person harassed was David Littman of the Association for World Education. This past June, during the eighth session of the HRC, Littman was scheduled to discuss the human rights of women in certain countries, including Islamic ones. Among other things, Littman’s testimony criticized human rights abuses resulting from the implementation of sharia—in particular, the forced marriage of Muslim girls as young as nine and the stoning of women for adultery, practices that cannot be adequately described without reference to the Koran. In stark violation of the rules, which state that no delegate can receive transcripts of forthcoming testimony, Amr Roshdy Hassan of Egypt had somehow obtained an advance copy of Littman’s speech. Hassan and others interrupted Littman a total of 16 times. The testimony, which should have taken only a few minutes to give, was prolonged to about two hours by various points of order and an extended 40-minute recess.

Backing up Hassan was Siddiqui, who claimed that Littman’s statement would “amount to spreading hatred against certain members of this Council.” Upon returning from the 40-minute recess, Costea ruled that the “Council is not prepared to discuss . . . religious matters in depth,” and reiterated with strange grammar and even stranger logic a ruling from an earlier session: “As long as a statement is made with restraint from making a judgment or evaluation of a particular set of legislation which is not in the point of our discussion, the speaker may continue.”

Littman did continue—by pointing out that in Iran and Sudan, women are buried up to their waists in pits and pummeled to death with blunt stones for the crime of infidelity, and that 96 percent of Egyptian women are still subjected to female genital mutilation, despite state legislation formally banning the practice (note that the HRC does permit a “judgment” or “evaluation” of secular legislation pertaining to human rights abuses). But the instant Littman suggested that only a fatwa issued by Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, an influential Egyptian cleric, could reverse this ghastly trend, Hassan once more interjected, demanding a vote on Littman’s testimony. “I will not see Islam crucified in the Council,” he declaimed. But asking an Islamic cleric to intervene to stop a human rights abuse is hardly a crucifixion of Islam.

The OIC’s members are wise to stifle any allusion to its own “human rights” documents in the HRC. If speakers like Brown were allowed to delve into the nitty-gritty of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam during a council session, they would easily show how it proscribes far more than it permits. Article 22 of the declaration, which defines free speech, stipulates:

(a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.

(b) Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Shari’ah.

(c) Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.

(d) It is not permitted to arouse nationalistic or doctrinal hatred or to do anything that may be an incitement to any form of racial discrimination.

A Muslim scholar who critically examines the Koran as a historical text would find little in the Cairo Declaration protecting his free speech and much curtailing it. An agnostic doubting the prophethood or virtue of Mohammed would be similarly at risk.

As for bona fide apostates, the Cairo Declaration gives them no quarter. “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature,” Article 10 states. “It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.” In Islam, it is assumed that only compulsion or ignorance could lead a believer to abandon his faith or to convert to another religion, both offenses punishable by death. The Cairo Declaration, then, amounts to a preemptive license for Muslim governments to murder missionaries or advocates of agnosticism or atheism.

One needn’t be a student of international law or an exegete of the Koran to see the poverty of these precepts when compared with the clear and precise language of the UDHR, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. Articles 18 and 19 of the most translated document in the world (according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) read:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Anyone who tries testifying to the council that the Cairo Declaration, which claims to complement these noble ideals, actually contradicts them—or that it cannot possibly complement them, since it is based on sharia, which affirms the inferiority of women and non-Muslims—will now be silenced.

The Obama administration’s quest for a seat at the council might prove useful in exposing the HRC to greater media scrutiny. But U.S. participation could inculpate America in every sinister resolution that the HRC advances and lend the council greater legitimacy on the world stage.

How can the ongoing disgrace of the HRC be rectified? One remedy might be to establish stricter prerequisites for HRC membership, such as being a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a party to the theory and practice of self-determination and freedom of speech, which also means freedom from religious injunctions. Member states might also be required to conduct transparent and independent internal investigations into human rights abuses occurring within their own borders.

During his presidential campaign, Republican senator John McCain advocated forming a League of Democracies that would work independently of the UN (though not replace it) to hold dictatorial or totalitarian regimes to account, impose economic sanctions on rogue states, and provide succor to targets of ethnic cleansing or genocide. With its strict rules for membership, such a multinational assembly would be free of internal obstruction by states like Russia and China, and would thus be in a better position to uphold human rights.

The League—which Anthony Lake, who has advised Barack Obama, also favors—might even create its own counterweight to the HRC, a body in which symbolic victories for human rights could take place outside the twilight zone of Islamic interference.

At the close of World War II, Bertrand Russell observed that the human species was historically unwilling to acquiesce to its own survival. An intellectual accomplice in this ongoing suicide pact is surely cultural relativism, an invention of Western liberalism that non-Western reactionaries have taken up as a license to kill and butcher people in peace and quiet. There has been no worse exemplar of this fatal tendency than the UN Human Rights Council.


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