Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly 60 years ago this week, international human rights have traveled along an unhappy trajectory. Two incidents involving the same states — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — usefully illustrate this trend and the resulting threats to international public order.
The first is last month’s Bombay massacre, carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist terror group based in Pakistan and funded in part by Saudi sources. This is the latest in an ongoing series of mass-casualty atrocities committed in the name of political Islam. An increasing number of roads lead to Pakistan, and nearly all the checks are written on the Arabian Peninsula.
The other incident took place in late 1948, during the final debate before the General Assembly’s unanimous adoption of the UDHR. Pakistan squared off against Saudi Arabia on the issue of religious freedom (Article 18). Pakistan favored Article 18 and voted in favor of the UDHR; Saudi Arabia opposed it and consequently abstained.
This memorable and momentous debate offers some bitter ironies for contemporary observers. Speaking for Pakistan was its first foreign minister, Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, a distinguished jurist who later served as president of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Zafrullah Khan argued powerfully that respecting religious freedom “involved the honor of Islam,” citing Koranic passages with the authority of a religious scholar who later translated the Koran into English. But Zufrallah Khan was also a prominent Ahmadi — a member of a minority Muslim sect whose numerous Pakistani adherents were later criminalized as infidels (kuffar) by the increasingly Islamist and intolerant Pakistani state. They have been savagely persecuted, along with Pakistan’s much-larger Shia community and all other religious minorities, right up to this day.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, was represented by a foreign hireling, one Jamil Baroody, a Lebanese of mixed Muslim-Christian parentage. (Posterity remembers him as “a slightly stooped, balding man with an appreciative eye for the well-turned leg,” thanks to a 1971 Time profile.) Some things never change, least of all the availability of pliant foreigners to carry water for the Saudis.
In this final debate, Syria powerfully seconded Pakistan, arguing that the UDHR “was not the work of a few representatives in the [General] Assembly” but rather “the achievement of generations of human beings who had worked to that end.” Joining Pakistan and Syria in voting for the UDHR were all the other Muslim-majority states then represented at the U.N.: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.
In abstaining — there were no negative votes cast — Saudi Arabia was hardly in distinguished company: Only apartheid South Africa and the six-member Soviet bloc (led by Vyacheslav Molotov, Josef Stalin’s foreign minister) joined the Kingdom. In total, there were 48 votes in favor, eight abstentions, and two absentees (Honduras and Yemen).
That was then, and this is now. Today, the UDHR survives mainly as the historical artifact of a bygone consensus based on the hard lessons learned in the brutal fight against the Axis Powers. Its core principles, freedom of expression and freedom of religion, are under sustained attack in the name of political Islam by the 56-state Organization of the Islamic Conference. This Saudi-based and -funded outfit has commandeered every available international forum — from the U.N. General Assembly to the Human Rights Council to the upcoming Durban II hate-fest — to press for the codification of Islamic blasphemy law as a new international legal norm (see here, for instance). The aim is to prohibit or even criminalize any expression deemed disrespectful to Islam, as defined by Muslims themselves (including analyses like this one, ultimately).
This fact is the proper context for reflecting on this week’s anniversary.