[Article published in the journal Midstream (New York) February/March 1999]

 Universal Human Rights and
"Human Rights in Islam"

 By David Littman

Islamic Perspectives on the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights

        For years now, a systematic effort has been made at the United Nations by certain member states to replace some of the dominant paradigms of international relations. For example, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran continue - in all fora - to press their objections to the universal character and indivisibility of human rights, as interpreted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which according to them, is a Western secular concept of Judeo-Christian origin, incompatible with the sacred Islamic shari'a

        We shall examine here a few major developments of concern that have occurred in the past decade at some of the top UN watchdog bodies on human rights: the Geneva-based Commission on Human Rights, its Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Committee, a major treaty body. 

        Last November, a seminar was held at the United Nations in Geneva under the auspices of the Office of the High Commissioner, but totally financed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) at a cost of almost half a million dollars. That event - called "Enriching the Universality of Human Rights: Islamic Perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" - could not, and did not, break the deadlock created by regular calls for "revision" of the 1948 UDHR. But one could ask - what led to the decision to organize it and how was it justified?

        On 17 March 1998, the first speaker at the Jubilee Commemoration of the UDHR - at the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, after the ceremonial speeches by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Vaclav Havel, and Elie Wiesel - was Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Kamal Kharazi (Iran then held the presidency of the OIC). His statement contained an appeal for a "revision of the Declaration," followed by a request that "the High Commissioner invite commentaries on the UDHR as a prelude to dialogue and encourage all states and organizations to join the exercise." (1) 

        As a result of his appeal - coming soon after Mrs. Mary Robinson's visit to Teheran in February, when the matter was first raised - the Office of the High Commissioner began preparations, jointly with the OIC, for a two-day seminar; it finally took place on 9-11 November 1998. For this unique UN event, twenty Islamic experts from the fifty-six OIC countries - one each from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan - presented their papers on "Islamic Perspectives on the UDHR." Discussions were restricted to the experts, while the more than 250 participating representatives from more than eighty states, intergovernmental and UN bodies, as well as forty-one nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) listened without any opportunity to ask questions. 

        The aims of the seminar were clarified in Mrs. Robinson's 29 October 1998 letter of invitation to all members of UN treaty bodies, working groups of the sub-commission and special rapporteurs: "The seminar is being organized during this 50th Anniversary year of the UDHR as part of the process of providing Islamic perspectives on the UDHR. I accept responsibility for the process in response to the invitation made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, during his address to the fifty-fourth session of the Commission on Human Rights (1998). I believe this process will help promote understanding and respect among peoples." 

United Nations Seminar where "Islam is understood in terms of Shari'a (Qur'an and Hadith)"

        An earlier explanation from her office (16 October) stated: "In order to achieve this objective ["to promote understanding and respect among peoples"], we have designed the seminar to have a scholarly focus and to be the venue for exchanges of scholarship, views and opinions. It will not be called upon to reach conclusions, adopt positions or review country practices. Further, 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 traditions or practices that may vary and mix with historical heritages. This will allow the seminar to focus on the Islamic perspective with a minimum of potential controversy which could overshadow the central purpose." 

        Two weeks after the event, a Muslim researcher from the European Institute at the University of Geneva, Mr. Hasni Abidi, wrote an article in the Tribune de Genève, "Human Rights à la carte," asking: "Are we going toward a new Universal Declaration of Human Rights? ...to accept this type of manifestation risks opening a breach in the universality of human rights. Worse, this seminar could constitute support for political attitudes totally in contradiction with the fundamental principles of human rights." (2) (translated from French)

        Aside from two revealing papers (3), the fact that this seminar led nowhere is not surprising as UN sponsored seminars and costly mega-conferences usually end with no effect on the real world. The problem is that these efforts to undercut international paradigms, which are at the core of the world order since 1945, are henceforth guaranteed an institutionalized forum and legitimacy within the United Nations system.

        The relation between the sacred, as announced in the Qur'an, and the political is one of the ongoing, controversial debates within Islamic countries. There is today a wide range of views as to what is covered by the shari'a, the nature of the State's legal system, the nature of the authority for its legal codes, the nature of these codes themselves, and the modalities for modifying them. In the light of the more and more frequent appeals to the authority of the shari'a by Islamist groups - in order to sanctify violence, or highly restrictive social measures imposed by them upon defenceless people under their ideological and totalitarian control - more and more voices are being raised for the separation of the political from the traditional legal and religious doctrine in Islam. 

        One such voice is that of Imam Soheib Bencheikh, the Mufti of Marseilles. Speaking at the Commission on Human Rights on March 23, 1998  - under the auspices of the Association for World Education - in relation to the savagery being perpetrated in Algeria, he called on Muslim theologians and thinkers to strive for a "desacralization of Islamic law" and a reform of Islamic theology. By repeating that call at the UN seminar on 9-10 November 1998, he again contributed a clear message. (4)

The International Bill of Human Rights and the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Program of Action

        Among the efforts to codify universal human values in the last half century, the UDHR is among the best known and most widely cited, both by governments and civil society. In today's planetary society, where people from so many different nations and cultures intermingle with increasing frequency, there should be common standards and a general acceptance of the International Bill of Human Rights: that is, the UDHR (1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both adopted in 1966. 

        These three basic texts have been developed in a subsequent series of international human rights instruments, which were published by the United Nations in A Compilation of International Instruments (5). Thus, an allegation that certain States were absent from the drafting process of the UDHR prior to its adoption on 10 December 1948 is specious as Third World countries and other States have had ample opportunities since then to contribute - as was done! - to the later elaboration and codification of the principles and rights contained in the UDHR. Therefore, no calls for a "revision of the Declaration" - along the lines requested by Dr. Kamal Khazari on 17 March 1998 - are justified.

        In this context, one should not forget the clear provisions contained in article 29 of the UDHR: 

        1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

        2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

        3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

        The corpus of international instruments on human rights adopted since 1948 constitutes a sufficiently flexible framework for their full implementation in all regions and countries in the world, provided the political will exists. The Preamble of the UDHR begins with the words: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." This idea is reiterated in article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." 

        In June 1993, in order to reaffirm the UDHR and the other international human rights instruments, the United Nations organized in Vienna a World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. The 171 participating States adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, thereby reasserting the universality of all human rights as the birthright of all human beings, and recognizing that their protection and promotion were the prime concerns of governments that guaranteed to uphold them. 

        The Preamble affirmed "that all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person." The UN General Assembly endorsed, by consensus, the Vienna Program of Action, and thereby the crucial importance of the recognition of the principle of human dignity inherent in the UDHR. The 1993 Vienna Declaration reaffirmed that: "The universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question." (I:1)

Two criticisms of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

        The year 1998 marked the five-year review of the implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. In the past, the universality and indivisibility of the rights set out in the UDHR came under criticism from two sources. The first was a Western, largely American-led criticism on economic, social and cultural rights. This was a reflection in the 1980s of an extreme neo-liberalism which maintained that the State should play a minimal role in the economic and social sphere. 

        But as a whole the international community did not yield to these pressures. Today, there is a realization of a need for a strong civil society and a widespread consensus in Western countries, demanding governmental leadership in fields of health, education, employment, housing and social security - all areas considered as "rights" in the UDHR. As a result, the earlier Western criticisms were much toned down and vigorous, poverty-reduction programs are now functioning within the United Nations system.

        The second source of attacks came from Third World countries that have earlier, ancient legal systems and are constantly calling for human rights to be viewed in the historical and cultural context of each country or civilization. China, India, and several countries of the Islamic world - notably Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia - have been stressing this position on and off. While many Third World countries are reluctant to follow this reasoning, few oppose it openly. 

        Already in Sepember 1992, six months before the Vienna Conference, the Final Declaration of the Conference of the 108 Non-Aligned Countries, held at Djakarta, Indonesia, stressed "differences in cultures" and implied that differences in the interpretation of human rights should be recognized. Since then, the new Indonesian government led by B.J. Habibie appears to be less vocal on the issue of "Asian Values."  Clearly all religions and traditional societies deserve respect, without however losing sight of the goals laid down in the International Bill of Human Rights. But any reinterpretation of human rights beyond the existing framework of international norms - that is, the various forms of "cultural relativism" - quickly leads to grave human rights abuses by some rulers whose States are signatories to the International Bill of Rights and to the other international human rights instruments. 

        Thus, any future "compromises" on the UDHR - based upon the proclaimed differences in culture, traditions, religion or socio-economic customs - rather than leading to peaceful reconciliation could, however worthy the intentions, insert uneven cobblestones, thus paving new paths of uncertainty in the coming century for the international community and all peoples of the world.

Iran's steadfast UN position on the UDHR since 1981

        In 1981 - two years after the Iranian revolution - the new government's position was clearly stated at the 36th UN General Assembly session, when its representative affirmed that the UDHR represented a secular interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition which could not be implemented by Muslims; if a choice had to be made between its stipulations and "the divine law of the country," Iran would always choose Islamic law.(6) This was the same year, 1981, in which the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR) was presented with much fanfare to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, attended by Ahmad Ben Bella of Algeria, Mukhtar Ould Daddah of Mauretania, Saudi Arabia's Prince Muhammad al-Faisal, and Pakistan president Zia al-Haq's advisor. It was prepared under the auspices of the Islamic Council, a London-based organization affiliated with the Muslim World League, an international non-governmental organization (NGO). As Ann Elizabeth Mayer explains: 

 In a casual reading, the English version of the UIDHR seems to be closely modeled after the UDHR, but upon closer examination many of the similarities turn out to be misleading. In addition, the English version diverges from the Arabic version at many points. (7)

        In his 7 December 1984 statement to the UN General Assembly's Third Committee, the Iranian representative, Mr. Rajaie-Khorassani, again put on record his country's position on the UDHR:

      In his delegation's view, the concept of human rights was not limited to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Man was of divine origin and human dignity could not be reduced to a series of secular norms [...] certain concepts contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights needed to be revised. [Iran] recognized no authority or power but that of Almighty God and no legal tradition apart from Islamic law. As his delegation had already stated at the thirty-sixth session of the General Assembly, conventions, declarations and resolutions or decisions of international organizations, which were contrary to Islam had no validity in the Islamic Republic of Iran.[...] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which represented a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, could not be implemented by Muslims and did not accord with the system of values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran; his country would therefore not hesitate to violate its provisions, since it had to choose between violating the divine law of the country and violating secular conventions. (8)

        Since then, this basic Iranian position has been reiterated. It was clearly expressed on October 30, 1992, in a reply by Ambassador Sirous Nasseri to the Human Rights Committee (the UN treaty body which supervises the 1966 ICCPR), regarding comments and questions by the Committee's independent members to Iran's second periodic report:

        It could, of course, be argued that each State party to the Covenant should simply apply its provisions to the letter. Yet many peoples were not satisfied with the rigid application of human rights instruments and wanted account taken of their traditions, culture and religious context in order to evaluate the human rights situation in a country. 

        A revival of Islam, which some call fanaticism or extremism and others renaissance, was obviously taking place.[...] It should be borne in mind that certain Islamic countries - and by no means the least important - had not subscribed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An even larger number had not yet acceded to the Covenant. There were reasons for that. It was easy to reject the argument that the representatives of Islamic countries had participated in the discussions that had led to the elaboration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant, for it was clear that at that time the Islamic countries had not carried the political weight they deserved - which was still true at the present time. The Islamic countries had therefore elaborated an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights [the CDHRI, 1990]. Members of the Committee had asked whether the Islamic Republic of Iran had specific reservations to make concerning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant; an examination of the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights revealed what, in the view of the Islamic countries, was lacking in those two instruments. 

        [Iran] had reached the conclusion that those two instruments were compatible with Islamic law. [...] Discrepencies [...] between domestic legislation and the Covenant should not be exaggerated. [...] Those differences could be overcome and a better understanding of Islam, of Islamic law and of international law achieved only by means of dialogue approached with an open mind. (9)

The 1990 "Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam" and the 1981 Universal Islamic Declaration

        The controversial Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) was adopted in Cairo on 5 August 1990 by the 19th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (session of Peace, Interdependence and Development) of the 45 Member States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), subsequent to the Report of the Meeting of the Committee of Legal Experts held in Teheran from 26-28 December 1989. The CDHRI establishes the shari'a law as "the only source of reference" for the protection of human rights in Islamic countries, thus giving it supremacy over the UDHR. The CDHRI was presented for approval at the OIC Summit Meeting of Heads of State and Government, held in Dakar, Senegal on 9 December 1991. This was averted following a press release from their Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). The dangers of the CDHRI were enumerated in the press release and again spelled out in a joint statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights by Adama Dieng, its Muslim secretary-general, a prominent Senegalese jurist, who alerted the international community to the grave negative implications that would result. Speaking for the ICJ and the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights at the Commission on Human Rights in February 1992 (10), he declared, inter alia, that:

        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 standards 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, which attack the integrity and dignity of the human being. 

        The ICJ's fears -  and that of the NGO community - concerned the inter-cultural consensus that forms the heart of the UDHR and the International Covenants ratified by most States, thus making them binding under international law.

        Although traditions, cultures and religious background may be different, human nature is universally the same. The aim of those who drafted and approved the UDHR was precisely to affirm this universal human identity, separating it from particular and religious contexts, which introduce and sanctify differences and discriminations. Any attempt to bring in cultural and religious particularisms would simply remove the specifically universal character of the UDHR.

        Neither the UIDHR nor the CDHRI is universal, because both are conditional on Islamic law which non-Muslims do not accept. The UDHR places social and political norms in a secular framework, separating the political from the religious.

        In contrast, both the UIDHR and the CDHRI introduce into the political sphere an Islamic religious criterion, which imposes an absolute decisive and divine primacy over the political and legal spheres. Therefore, the latter texts cannot be considered universal, since they endorse all the differentiations between individuals as spelled out in the Islamic shari'a law. 

Application of the shari'a law in Pakistan and other Muslim countries

        The case of Pakistan is exemplary because in August 1998 the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif introduced a controversial constitutional amendment to scrap any remaining British laws in Pakistan and replace them with laws based on the Qur'an, giving the government sweeping powers to "prescribe what is right and forbid what is wrong." The National Assembly passed the amendment in September, but it still awaits a Senate vote where the prime minister's Pakistan Muslim League does not have an absolute majority. This notwithstanding, on 16 January 1999 an ordinance signed by the governor of the Northwest Frontier, representing the federal government, imposed Islamic shari'a law in tribal areas of the northwest part of the country, between the provincial capital Peshawar, and the border with Afghanistan, where similar punishments have been imposed by the Taliban religious army. These include public flogging, amputations of hands and feet, stoning for adultery, and executions. All civil and criminal cases will now be decided according to the Qur'an, in courts headed by Muslim clerics. "Opposition parties, human rights groups and non-Muslim minorities bitterly oppose the prime minister's efforts to introduce Islamic laws saying they violate the Constitution." (11) 

        The 1985 Constitution distinguishes between derogable and non-derogable human rights - freedom of religion being classified as a derogable right. During the presidency of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988), a Federal Shariat, or legal Court (FSC), was instituted with full "jurisdiction over convictions or acquittals from district courts in cases involving... Islamic criminal laws; exclusive jurisdiction to hear [petitions]... challenging 'any law or provision of law' as repugnant to the Holy Qur'an; exclusive jurisdiction to examine' any law or provision of law' for repugnancy to the Holy Qur'an. (12) (Art. 203-D [1]) 

        Although non-Muslims may not appear before the Shariat Court to give testimony, they are subject to its rulings. Ordinance XX (1984), which was incorporated into the 1985 Constitution, established the Islamic Hudood (Punishment) to "define crimes against Islam" and "enforce punishment for those who commit such crimes" In such cases, testimony from a non-Muslim male is considered to be worth half that of a Muslim male. In 1986, Section 295-C was inserted into Pakistan's Penal Code, making the death penalty  mandatory for anyone convicted of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. From 1986 to 1993, over 200 Ahmadis Muslims were charged with "blasphemy," but none were convicted. More than a dozen Christians were charged, four of whom were reportedly killed in detention, but none executed. On May 6, 1998, John Joseph, Bishop of Faisalabad, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission established by the Catholics Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, killed himself to protest against these blasphemy laws. (13)

        In the shari'a legal system - practised in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan - and in other Muslim countries - the testimony of a Muslim man is equal to the testimony of two Muslim women. Other examples from the shari'a, strictly applied or in abeyance, abound. The demands of Islamist groups in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere usually relate to traditional extremist interpretations of the shari'a law. 

English and Arabic versions may differ, but shari'a law prevails

        As with the 1981 UIDHR, there exists both an English version for general purposes as well as an Arabic version of the 1990 CDHRI, each conveying a somewhat different message. Nonetheless, Articles 24 and 25 in the English version of the CDHRI are very precise and leave no doubt as to the overall meaning: 

       All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'a. (article 24) 

        The Islamic Shari'a is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration. (article 25)

        In spite of the self-evident contradiction with the UDHR, the CDHRI was published in December 1997 by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Volume II of International Instruments, which would seem to give it a certain authority, even if the sub-title refers to Regional Instruments, whereas the sub-title of Volume I (in two parts) is Universal Instruments.

        It is difficult to understand why the CDHRI is the concluding document in Volume II, under the section: "E. Organization of the Islamic Conference" - as the OIC is not a specific regional body, nor is the CDHRI a "regional instrument." (14) 

"Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam" at the UN

        The CDHRI was supposed to "serve as a general guidance for Member States in the field of human rights" and its preamble states: 

        The Member States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Reaffirming the civilizing and historic role of the Islamic Ummah which God made the best nation that has given mankind a universal and well-balanced civilization in which harmony is established between this life and the hereafter and knowledge is combined with faith; [and] ... Believing that fundamental rights and universal freedoms in Islam are an integral part of the Islamic religion [...] as they are binding divine commandments, which are contained in the Revealed Books of God and were sent through the last of His Prophets to complete the preceding divine messages thereby making their observance an act of worship and their neglect or violation an abominable sin, and accordingly every person is individually responsible - and the Ummah collectively responsible - for their safeguard. 

        The CDHRI thus claims supremacy over the UDHR, based on divine revelation. 

        Volume II was circulated to all eighteen "independent experts" of the Sub-Commission, who referred to the CDHRI in the preamble to a resolution adopted on 21 August, 1998. (16) It reads, inter alia

        1998/17: Situation of Women in Afghanistan

        Deeply concerned at the situation of the female population of Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban,

        Dismayed by the Taliban's claim that Islam supports their policies concerning women,

        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. 

        The reference is to article 6 (a) of the CDHRI, which states: "Woman is equal to man in human dignity, and has rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform..." These "rights to enjoy" are "subject to the Islamic Shari'a" (article 24), and the "duties" are also prescribed by the Islamic shari'a. 

Two previous UN examples related to "blasphemy"

        In an 18 February 1994 letter addressed to all delegates at the Commission on Human Rights (15), the Sudanese ambassador requested an immediate withdrawal of any reference - from the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Sudan - in which certain inconsistences were indicated between the international human rights conventions and the provisions of Sudan's Criminal Act of 1991. The ambassador alleged that the report "contained abusive, inconsiderate, blasphemous and offensive remarks about the Islamic faith." A further Sudanese circular, entitled, "Attack on Islam," claimed that portions of the report "represent a vicious attack on the religion of Islam and contain a call for the abolition of its Islamic Penal Legislation." 

        In reply, the Commission adopted resolution 1994/79 calling on the government of Sudan "to comply with applicable international human rights instruments and to bring its national legislation into accordance with the instruments to which Sudan was a party". In spite of death threats published in the government's newspaper Horizon (16), Dr. Gaspar Biro continued investigations into the many human rights violations in Sudan, fully described in his later reports submitted to the UN General Assembly and to the UN Human Rights Commission. (17) He was supported by resolutions condemning the Government of Sudan. 

        On 18 April 1997, another "blasphemy" charge was levelled. (18) This time the alleged offending words were from a quoted passage, contained in the report of Special Rapporteur on Racism, Mr. Maurice Glélé-Ahanhanzo from Benin (under "Islamist and Arab Anti-Semitism"). (19) This new "blasphemy" charge succeeded after the representative of Indonesia intervened on the last day of the Commission - in the name of the OIC's 56 Islamic States, on the initiative of Iran - claiming that Islam had been defamed and "blasphemy" committed against the holy Qur'an. This led to the 53-member-state Commission's consensus decision 1997/125, obliging the Special Rapporteur to take a "corrective action." (20). 

        Hence a very dangerous precedent: the censorship of a UN Special Rapporteur, in his capacity as an independent expert; and of his UN report on grounds of "blasphemy" - although the facts he quoted are exact. It provides a concrete example of how the consequences of a cultural-relativist approach were imposed, by consensus, on the UN Commission on Human Rights, thereby avoiding a "religious-cultural" conflict. As a result, the only choice for the Special Rapporteur became: censorship or resignation. (21) 

        A year later, on 24 March 1998, the representatives of Iran and Sudan were still calling for the Commission on Human Rights to act even more harshly in regard to its "blasphemy" censorship decision 1997/125. (22) One should not be surprised if such pressures persist in this case and others, as a result of the seminar jointly organized by the Office of the High Commissioner and the OIC - to quote Mrs. Robinson's letter of "invitation " - as part of the process of providing Islamic perspectives on the UDHR."

        Regarding Islamic perspectives on human rights, in general, Ann Elizabeth Mayer made a pertinent point in her authoritative study:

       Since most current theorists of Islamic human rights persist in talking exclusively in terms of an idealized vision of Islamic social harmony, even though the historical record and the acts of current governments have manifestly demonstrated the inadequacy of the very scheme that they propose, one may doubt that their Islamic human rights schemes were actually devised to deal with contemporary political problems or to improve protections for human rights in contemporary Middle Eastern societies. (23)
The universal character of human rights is of strategic importance

        Debates on the nature of the shari'a in Islamic countries and elsewhere can be of intellectual interest, but they are not relevant to the UDHC, nor to the intergovernmental decisions based on it. The principal aim of the UDHR was to create a framework for a world society that needs some universal codes based on mutual consent in order to function. It is the universal character of the UDHR that makes it a common base for relations between peoples across national and cultural frontiers. 

        Today, people understand the importance of the respect for the dignity and uniqueness of every human being. At the same time, there is a common awareness of dignity disregarded. There are many reasons, however, to consider the issue of human rights as of strategic importance, beyond any past experience in the Cold War. The human dignity of every single human being can be properly affirmed and given effective protection only within the framework of an interrelated system of norms, principles and institutions. Human rights issues in international relations are frequently interpreted as belonging to the moral sphere, despite existing legally binding international instruments that developed the principles of the UDHR. One of the lessons of the Cold War in this regard is that only a firm and non-compromising stand regarding the most fundamental questions can lead to the effective implementation of the ideals and objectives of the International Bill of Human Rights and other relevant instruments. (24)

* * * * *


(1)  From official text; see also UN summary record E/CN.4/1998/SR.2, para.9.

(2)  "Droits de l'homme à la carte," Tribune de Genève, 25 November 1998.

(3)  By Soheib Bencheikh (Algeria), "L'Islam et la liberté religieuse" (HR/IP/SEM/ 1998/WP.11); Dr. Ridwan El Sayyed (Lebanon), "Human rights in contemporary Muslim thought" (HR/IP/SEM/1998/WP.13).

(4)  "...it was necessary that Muslim theologians and thinkers should break their shameful silence and appeal for a reform of their theology and a rereading of the Koran..." (23 March 1998: E/CN.4/1998/SR.21, para 66); and "Le problème des musulmans est d'avoir sacralisé l'Islam", Le Courrier (Agence Télégraphique Suisse), Geneva, 14-15 November 1998.

(5)  A Compilation of International Instruments. Volume I: Universal Instruments (Part 1 and Part 2), New York/Geneva: UN (Centre for Human Rights), 1993-94, 5th rev. (ST/HR/I/Rev.5), pp. 418 and pp. 950.

(6)  The new Iranian Constitution (December 1979) referred to human rights in Article 20, without endorsing the UDHR. See A/C.3/37/SR. 56, paras. 53-55, for a 1982 demand to transform the UDHR "through sincere dialogue and honest scholarly endeavour."

(7)  Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights. Tradition and Politics, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press/London: Pinter Publishers, 1991 p. 27.

(8)  A/C.3/39/SR.65, paras. 91-95. 

(9)  Official Records of the Human Rights Committee 1992-93, CCPR/12 (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), New York/Geneva: UN (ICCPR), 1996, Volume I, 46th session, 1196th meeting, paras. 55-59. 

(10)  Press Release (Geneva, 5 December 1991). E.CN.4/1992/SR.20, paras. 17-20.

(11)  "Pakistan Imposes Strict Islamic Law," Associated Press, 17 January 1999. 

(12)  Charles H. Kennedy, "Repugnance to Islam - Who Decides? Islam and Legal Reform in Pakistan," International and Comparative Law, vol. 41, Part 4, October 1992, p. 772.

(13)  Association for World Education, "Blasphemy Legislation in Pakistan's Penal Code," NGO Written Statement, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1998/NGO/3. 

(14)  A Compilation of International Instruments. Volume II: Regional Instruments, New York/Geneva: UN (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), December 1997, pp. 478-484. 

(15)  E/CN.4/1994/122. 

(16)  Agence France Press, 14 February 1994.

(17)  GA interim reports: A/48/601, A/49/539, A/50/569, A/51/490, A/51/510; CHR reports: E/CN.4/1994/48, E/CN.4/1995/58, E/CN.4/1996/62, E/CN.4/1997/58 and E/CN.4/1998/66. Extracts from his 1993-95 reports, detailing slavery and forced conversions to Islam, were summarized in a documentary article with an introduction, by David Littman, "The U.N. Finds Slavery in the Sudan," Middle East Quarterly, Vol. III, N? 3, September 1996, pp.90-94. 

(18)  René Wadlow and David Littman, "Dangerous Censorship of a UN Special Rapporteur," Justice, Tel Aviv, September 1997, No. 14, pp.10-17; "Blasphemy at the United Nations?," Middle East Quarterly, Philadelphia, Vol. 4: No. 4, December 1997, pp. 85-86; "UN Special Rapporteur Censured on 'Islamist and Arab Antisemitism'", Midstream, New York, Vol.44, No. 2, February/March 1998, pp.8-13.

(19)  E/CN.4/1997/71, sub-heading: E.3, Chapter II.

(20)  E/CN.4/1997/SR.70, paras. 22-23.

(21)  E/CN.4/1998/71, Corr.1.

(22)  E/CN.4/1998/SR.11, para 50, and SR.12, para. 10. For another "blasphemy" case in relation to the 1948 Genocide Convention, see the 1997 written statement by the Association for World Education: E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/NGO/15.

(23)  Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights, op. cit. p. 67. In chapter 5 on Discrimination Against Women and Non-Muslims, she concludes: "In these circumstances, reference to Islamic criteria on rights is not likely to result in respect for the principles of equality and equal protection of the law as mandated in international human rights law; instead, such references tend to undermine the rights involved and to afford legal rationales for discrimination." (p. 108). A recent attempt at an analysis of this problem, led its author to conclude that: "Although doctrinal Islam does not stand in dire need of reinterpreting its juridical tenets, it surely needs reformulation of its human rights doctrine specifically in reference to gender, non-revealed religions, and equality between and among Muslims and non-Muslims." (Mahmood Monshipouri, "The Muslim World Half a Century after the Universal Declaration of Human rights: Progress and Obstacles," in Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, Vol. 16, No. 3, September 1998, pp. 287-314.) 

(24)  On this idea, see Gaspar Biro, "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Cold War." Statement to an International Colloquium (subject: La Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme: 1948-1998: Avenir d'un idéal), La Sorbonne, Paris, 14-16 September 1998
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