The principal aim of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was to create a framework for a universal code based on mutual consent. The early years of the United Nations were overshadowed by the division between the Western and Communist conceptions of human rights, although neither side called into question the concept of universality. The debate centered on which “rights” — political, economic, and social — were to be included among the Universal Instruments. In the 1960s, with the arrival of a large number of third-world states that had not been present in 1948, there were discussions as to whether new states were bound by those covenants that had been adopted before they became independent and joined the U.N. By and large, consensus was reached on the universality of human rights, but a new concept — that of “cultural relativism” — was to evolve soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
A crucial part of the debate has consisted in bringing national legislation into conformity with the universal human-rights standards defined in what is usually called the “International Bill of Human Rights” — that is, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Usually, states that ratified the international covenants modified their legislation when it was not in conformity.
But the problem with such goals is that they can be repeatedly nullified through attempts to deliberately confuse universal human-rights issues. One “religious” example of this was the “Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights,” proclaimed at UNESCO in 1981 and followed by the “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam” (CDHRI), adopted in August 1990 by the 19th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers of the 45 OIC countries.
Already in 1981, at the 36th session of the U.N. General Assembly, the representative of Iran had declared that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented a secular interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which could not be implemented by Muslims; if a choice had to be made, he said, between its stipulations and “the divine law of the country,” Iran would always choose Islamic law. Since then, Iran has led the struggle to modify the UDHR.
In October 1998, the Association for World Education requested from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) an explanation for the inclusion of this religious “Declaration” in the U.N. publication, A Compilation of International Instruments, vol. II (1997), pp. 478-84. A reply, dated September 14, 2000, reaffirmed that:” 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 erge omnes obligations under customary international law.”
It is significant that article 24 of the CDHRI states that it is “subject to the Islamic sharia,” and its article 25 confirms that sharia “is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of this Declaration.” It is thus clear that sharia has supremacy, and that the 1990 CDHRI has primacy — in the view of its authors — over all universal instruments, including the International Bill of Human Rights (UDHR included) and all other U.N. covenants.1
Soon after the Cairo Declaration was consecrated as an “international instrument,” a seminar took place at the United Nations in Geneva. On taking office in 1997, Iranian president Mohammed Reza Khatami had called for a global “dialogue of civilizations.” A few months later, Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi — the first speaker at the Jubilee Commemoration of the UDHR to address the U.N. Commission on March 17, 1998 — called for a “revision of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” On November 9-10, 1998 the OHCHR jointly hosted a seminar at the United Nations in Geneva entitled “Enriching the Universality of Human Rights: Islamic Perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” At that event, financed by the OIC countries at a cost of nearly $500,000, 20 Muslim experts on Islam presented papers which they discussed among themselves.
In his opening address, the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Azeddine Laraki, stated:
An elite of Muslim experts in the field of Sharia and Law are thus being offered the opportunity to present researches which expound the Islamic perspective as to human rights and recall the contribution of Islam to the laying of the foundations of these rights through which Islam aimed at leading people out of the obscurities and into enlightenment, at ensuring dignity in their life and non-submission to anyone but God, and at asserting their freedom and their right to justice and equality on the basis of the two sources of Islamic Shari’a: Qur’an and Sunna and on Fiqh jurisprudence, away from politicking, demagogy or reliance on local practices and mores which are subject to variations according to historical legacies.
In her prior, explanatory letter to all delegations, the new high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, wrote: “We have agreed that for the purpose of this seminar, Islam is understood in terms of ‘Shari’a’ (Qur’an and Hadith) and not in terms of tradition or practices that may vary and mix with historical heritage.” For the first time at a U.N. public seminar, no questions were allowed from the more than 250 participants from about 80 states, intergovernmental, and U.N. bodies, as well as 41 NGOs.
Seven years earlier, in a press release, the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) had strongly criticized the CDHRI, presented for approval at the OIC Summit Meeting of Heads of State and Government held in Dakar on Dec. 9, 1991. Its secretary-general — Adama Dieng, a Senegalese jurist — declared in a joint statement to the UNCHR for the ICJ and for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (Feb. 1992):
1) It gravely threatens the inter-cultural consensus on which the international human rights instruments are based;
2) It introduces, in the name of the defence of human rights, an intolerable discrimination against both non-Muslims and women;
3) It reveals a deliberately restrictive character in regard to certain fundamental rights and freedoms, to the point that certain essential provisions are below the legal standard in effect in a number of Muslim countries;
4) It confirms under cover of the “Islamic Shari’a (Law)” the legitimacy of practices, such as corporal punishment, that attack the integrity and dignity of the human being.
In spite of this clear warning by the head of a much-esteemed NGO (who was himself a Muslim, and later to become a U.N. special rapporteur), Mary Robinson warmly “welcomed the invitation” from Iran’s foreign minister for a seminar at the United Nations.
In this same period in 1998, the year 2001 had been officially designated by the U.N.’s General Assembly as a “United Nations Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations” — once again on the initiative of Iran — even as the Khomeini fatwa against Salman Rushdie remained in effect. This “Dialogue of Civilization Year” included the “Durban World Conference Against Racism,” — just before the 9/11 jihad attack — where the U.N. underwent a most shameful metamorphosis as racist attempts were made to reanimate that General Assembly Resolution 3398, which had assimilated Zionism with racism in 1975, on the 37th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
It was the time of the sharia show trial of the Isfahan Jews. Also in 2000, a bill in the Iranian parliament to end marriages for young girls aged nine — introduced following the 1979 Islamic revolution — was refused by religious groups on the grounds that it would be against Islamic teachings to make changes to the current law, since “Islamic scholars had put a lot of efforts into these laws.” (Muhammad Ali Sheikh, quoted in parliament.) Yet, in 1994, Iran signed and then ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 1 of which specifies: “A child means a person below the age of 18 unless, under existing law, majority may be attained earlier.”
The regime that may best exemplify this Kafkaesque reality — where member states sign and ratify U.N. covenants, and then act in total contradiction with what they have accepted — is the Sudan. In his first report, dated February 1, 1994, the special rapporteur on the Sudan, Gaspar Biro, called upon “the Government of Sudan to bring its legislation into accordance with international instruments to which it is a party [signatory in 1986].” On February 18, 1994, Sudanese ambassador Ali Ahmed Sahloul sent a letter to all the permanent representatives and observers at the U.N. in Geneva. This followed a similarly worded circular distributed the previous day at the Commission on Human Rights, entitled — in bold letters — “ATTACK ON ISLAM,” which declared that the report of Biro had contained
abusive, inconsiderate, blasphemous and offensive remarks about the Islamic faith. These remarks, and the way in which they were brought forward in the said report, represent a vicious attack against the Islamic religion and the laws and legislation derived therefrom. They are also in contradiction to the principles of the freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In its official “Comments on the Report,” Sudan announced: “All Muslims are ordained by God to subject themselves to Shari’a Laws and that matter could not be contested or challenged by a Special Rapporteur or other U.N. agencies or representatives.”
Biro was threatened at gatherings of both the commission and the general assembly, until a GA resolution in December 1995 referring directly to the “unacceptable threat against his person.” The permanent secretary of the Sudanese Ministry of Justice, Ahmad Al-Mufti, speaking at the U.N.’s Third Committee in New York (November 1995), had stated: “And we don’t want to speculate about his fate if he is to continue offending the feelings of Muslims worldwide by maintaining that call” for the abolition of Sudan’s 1991 Penal Legislation, which included floggings, stonings, amputation, and crucifixions.
Irony of ironies: On March 14-15, 2002, the OIC organized a “Symposium of Human Rights in Islam” — just before the six-week session of the UNCHR was to begin. The first paper, which criticized America’s reaction to September 11, 2001, was entitled “War Against Terrorism: Impact on Human Rights,” and was delivered by the same Ahmad Al-Mufti — now director-general of the Khartoum International Centre for Human Rights. One of his conclusions: “Islam adds new positive dimensions to human rights, since, unlike international instruments, it attributes them to a divine source thereby adding a new moral motivation for complying with them.”
On March 15, 2002, Mary Robinson — at the time still High Commissioner for Human Rights — addressed the OIC Conference Symposium. In her official, circulated text, she stated, inter alia, under the heading “A greater need for an understanding of Islam”:
No one can deny that at its core Islam is entirely consonant with the principles of fundamental human rights, including human dignity, tolerance, solidarity and quality. Numerous passages from the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad will testify to this. No one can deny, from a historic perspective, the revolutionary force that is Islam, which bestowed rights upon women and children long before similar recognition was afforded in other civilisations. Custom and tradition have tended to limit these rights, but as more Islamic States ratify the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, ways forward for women are being found and women are leading the debate. And no one can deny the acceptance of the universality of human rights by Islamic States.
At the back of the room where she spoke could be found various written statements by the participants, as well as copies of the 1990 “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam” — but not the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, normally available there in five languages.
In international relations, human-rights issues are frequently interpreted as belonging to the moral-religious sphere — despite the existence of legally binding international covenants that have developed the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One lesson of the Cold War, in this regard, was that only a firm and uncompromising stand on the most fundamental questions can bring about the effective implementation of the ideals set forth in the International Bill of Human Rights.
Diplomatically correct words and gestures are not enough. For a start, the mask of hypocrisy must be ripped away, particularly at the 53-state U.N. Commission on Human Rights (the United States is once again a member), which reached a low point in its history during the six-week session in 2002, when more than 50 percent of time allotted for examining human-rights violations worldwide was devoted to the Palestinian “question,” and to Israel. There will be a vote on January 20, 2003 — Monday in Geneva — for Libya to assume the chair — which had also been coveted by the only other eligible candidates this time round: Algeria and Sudan. This fact could well prompt many observers to conclude that: Something is rotten in the state of … the U.N.
1 David G. Littman, “Islamism Grows Stronger at the United Nations”, Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 1999, pp. 59-64.
— David G. Littman, a historian, is a representative of the Association for World Education (AWE), an NGO to the United Nations Office in Geneva. This article is based on his testimony before a U.S. Congressional human-rights caucus briefing (Feb. 8, 2002), and a lecture at Georgetown University (Oct. 22, 2002) posted at http://www.dhimmitude.org. (Dhimmitude — Today)