REPORTS FROM A VISIT TO UNHCR, GENEVA SEPT 2010

REPORT FROM MY VISIT TO THE UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL IN GENEVA

By Raheel Raza

I had the privilege of being invited as a member of an NGO to the UN for the 15th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.  With them I attended UN sessions for one week, and made the following interventions regarding human rights globally.

Monday 13 September 2010, Item 2: Report of the High Commissioner

Defending the Human Rights of All People

Mr President

We thank the High Commissioner, for the emphasis she placed in her report, on the targeting of human rights defenders, women and children.

There is no right more fundamental than the right to life. But defenders cannot defend that right when their freedom of expression, and freedom of the press is curtailed, often violently. We welcome her naming of several states whose record in this respect falls far short of their international obligations.

Can we now hope that these issues will be seriously addressed, during this session of the Council?

In common with all States parties to the ICCPR, OIC Member States are supposed to be concerned with the human rights of individuals, both in their own territories, and throughout the world. Each state has the ultimate responsibility of protecting the human rights of everyone, whether citizens or not, resident in their territory, and subject to their laws. The OIC states in particular are falling far short of their obligations under international law in this regard, especially for women.

In our written statement to this session, we have highlighted many examples which show the extent to which women’s human rights are being denied in OIC Member States.

We would respectfully remind both member and observer States of this Council that they are here not to protect the interests of their governments, their elites, or their religions but to protect the human rights of all, and particularly women, whose rights are being systematically abused in many of their territories.  

Thank you

 Monday 20 September 2010, Item 4: Matters requiring the attention of the Council

Stoning and Honour Killing in Islamic States

 Mr President

The question of stoning and “honour” killing in some Islamic States is not whether such punishments are permitted or prescribed by Sharia Law, but whether they are permitted by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

We hear daily reports of women – and it is almost always women – condemned to death by stoning or of young women being murdered by the families in some utterly misguided belief that they are protecting family honour.

We recognize that honour killing is not confined to Muslims, but what is particularly shocking is that, after murdering a sister or daughter, these criminals are walking away scot-free because the Islamic law of Quisas (or retribution) allows the heirs to pardon the murderer – so the father, for example, can pardon a son who kills his sister.

For too long, Mr President, States have hidden their barbaric practices behind religious justification. And it seems that such practices are actually on the increase.

Mr President, as a Muslim woman I can say that religion cannot – and must not – be used to trump human rights: and above all, the right to life.

This Council must now accept its responsibility to unequivocally condemn these practices: not only stoning and “honour killing”, but the culture of impunity and religious justification that encourages such barbarity – wherever it may occur.

It is surely time, Mr President, that a resolution on these issues was introduced into the Council. Which member states will finally grasp this nettle – however unpopular it may be with the dominant culture here?

Thank you, sir.

 Standing up for freedom of expression

On Thursday September 17 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, International PEN, with support from three other organisations and the Norwegian Mission to the UN Geneva, hosted a public meeting called “Faith and Free Speech, Defamation of Religions and Freedom of Expression.” The consensus that emerged from the meeting was that criminalising defamation of religion is not the way forward.

Canadian John Ralston Saul was chair of the panel. He said that pluralism and freedom of speech require the freedom to criticize and be criticized. He explained that human rights are not attached to ideologies, philosophies or faith, they are attached to individuals; there are many religions but only one humanity.

Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of Article 19 spoke about the critical question of how do we deal with defamation of faith and religious intolerance without getting the state involved. One solution suggested was more interfaith dialogue to diffuse hate speech while others suggested that interfaith was not enough, we have to involve all of civil society, believers and non-believers alike.

Tariq Ramadan spoke at length about “the West”, “Western values”, “us” and “them” and the fact that every few days Muslim minorities were dealing with issues. He mentioned the Florida Quran burning proposal, the ban on minarets in Switzerland and the ban on the burqa in France. He claimed that double standards mean some criticism is acceptable and some, such as anti-Semitism, is not, and argued that no freedom is absolute. He seemed unaware that freedom of religion or belief is absolute in international law and in the West, even though it is not in many Islamic countries.

I was amazed at how inevitably most of the Muslim speakers brought the larger debate down to lowest common denominator: the victimhood of Muslims in the West. Adding fuel to this fire was the Pakistani Ambassador who is also spokesman for the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) in Geneva. He said that this panel was useless, Muslims are being persecuted all over the West and Islamophobia and double standards are rampant. The chair had offered him two minutes but he ranted on for five about how Muslims are victimized and harassed in the West, and he too brought up the Quran burning issue. When he finally stopped I put my hand up and was given the floor as the Ambassador got up and started to leave the room. This is what I said: 

“Thank you.  I am a Canadian of Pakistani origin and I’d like to totally rebut what the Honourable Ambassador has said. I have lived in the West for 25 years and I don’t know where he has been living, but I think Muslims have more freedom in the West than they have ever had in many Muslim lands.

“When you talk about interfaith dialogue, there in absolutely no dialogue going on between the Muslim communities. Dialogue is a two way street…  Mr Ambassador, Sir, I am responding to what you said, so it is rather rude of you to get up and leave! However, I will say that for the rest of the audience here that this is absolutely unacceptable.  And freedom of speech is the most important human right we have. And I totally support freedom of expression, even if it is against my faith. When he speaks about Geert Wilders, Geert Wilders has the absolute freedom to say exactly what he wants. It does not affect me personally and neither does it harm my faith.

“The Western world was the first country … the Canadian Prime Minister and Americans were the first to condemn the burning of the Koran by the Pastor Terry Jones.

“I would never have the absolute freedom to say what I want, the way I do here, in my own country of birth, so, certainly we are talking of equal treatment of Muslims here in the West!

“I would also like to comment about… Professor  Ramadan spoke at length about Western values, the Western World. This is not a debate between Muslims and the West. Unfortunately that’s what it comes down to, which is being divisive. We’re speaking here of human rights that extend to all faiths so, let’s get over this victim ideology that we, Muslims, are being persecuted.

“And let’s talk about the freedom of speech of everyone in the room here today, and let’s get to the point of freedom of speech, and freedom of religious expression.

“Thank you.”

My rebuttal can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e69vAW0wBg

Tariq Ramadan then looked pointedly at me and spent the rest of the discussion explaining that he was not speaking entirely about the West, but that there are problems and we must learn to “listen” to the ambassador because there are many people like him and we must listen to them. Then he contradicted himself by saying the Geert Wilders knows exactly what he is saying and doing and does it intentionally and we don’t need to listen to him. Prof. Ramadan waffled on many issues and he lacked clarity.

Two Iranian women spoke after me and challenged him on the fact that Muslims are more persecuted by Muslims than in the West. They gave their examples and asked him why he doesn’t clearly condemn atrocities against Muslim women? He replied that that was not the subject of today’s debate.

It’s clear that the idea of victimology plays well into the hands of the Islamists – and here I make a clear distinction between political Islam – the Islamists – and Muslims like me, who are practicing and trying to promote the spiritual message of Islam.

The OIC have a powerful grip here at the UN because their numbers are high and they and their allies have an unspoken agreement to stand up for one another, regardless of cause. So if the word “sharia” for example is ever used in any resolution or speech it can be stricken from the record. The stoning of women can be condemned, but the fact that it is prescribed by the sharia cannot be mentioned.  –Raheel Raza

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OTHER REPORTS:

 It was just three years ago that the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [8], Louise Arbour said “there can be no taboos in the Human Rights Council [9]”. But there were then, and there still are today – as we learned this afternoon at a meeting to discuss slavery and forced labour in Brazil and Mauritania.
The Mauritanian ambassador, His Excellency Sheikh Ahmed Ould Zahave, who had been expected to outline his government’s measures to eliminate slavery, simply set out to explain the traditional, cultural and economic roots of this “division of labour”. His arguments would have been familiar to anyone who had heard Indian diplomats over the years seeking to justify the persistence of the caste [10] system, while at the same time speaking as though it was in any case a thing of the past. 
Raheel Raza, speaking for IHEU [11] during the question period, echoed the disappointment of many in the audience when she said:

   “You may recall that our organization spoke on the issue of slavery in Mauritania at the last session of the Human Rights Council in June. Whilst welcoming the election of Mauritania to the Council, we suggested that it provided a golden opportunity for Mauritania to act more positively in the fight to eliminate slavery from its territory. There are still an estimated 600,000 slaves – let’s not mince words – living in captivity in that country.
    “We would suggest that regardless of social and cultural traditions, economic reality and the partition of labour that leads to the continuation of slavery, these do not justify the continuation of the practice. It is not possible to re-define slavery out of existence. This is not about semantics; it is about the denial of human rights to a vast number of people.
     “We look forward to seeing real progress on the ground in Mauritania”.

Raheel was thanked later by one of the panelists for saying what she could not have said.
But when another IHEU representative, Magali Prince, attempted to ask a question of the Mauritanian ambassador she was stopped by the chair, Karim Ghezraoui of the Office of the High Commission. Magali’s offence was that she had uttered the word ‘Islamic’.
Here is the question she was attempting to ask:

    “I have listened with great attention and been very moved by the overwhelming presentations on the status of slavery in Brazil. In contrast, we have had confirmation that the Mauritanian government still denies the existence of slavery in Mauritania. Even though Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, what we hear about it here in Europe regularly moves and shocks us. During the presentation, we heard not about of slavery in Mauritania, but of ‘sequels’ to slavery. Doesn’t  sequel mean: what comes after a situation has ceased to exist ?  Does His Excellency the Ambassador agree that religious support for the institution of slavery is a major factor in its persistence in his country? 
“An Amnesty International report dated May 20091, said that:
    ‘Justice is in the hands of religious Muslims. Mauritania is an Islamic Republic which (…applies the rules of Charia, more precisely the Malekit Muslim code which tolerates slavery and which no law can contradict : These religious Muslims provide flawless support to the slavery system’).

But as as she reached the words “Islamic Republic”, Magali was stopped by the chairman who objected : “We are not here to discuss religion, this is about slavery, please stick to the issue..”
Magali continued quoting the Amnesty statement and the chair immediately stopped her again and asked her to conclude her statement. She switched off her microphone saying “If I can’t finish making my statement I have nothing more to say”.

Roy Brown [12] immediately rose from his seat, gathered his belongings together and, followed by the other four IHEU representatives, left the hall. On his way out the chair asked Roy to have the courtesy to stay and listen to the other speakers. Roy replied in a loud, clear voice: “We do not accept taboos, sir!”
In fact, the question that Magali was attempting to ask is particularly relevant to the persistence of slavery in Mauritania, just as it is to the persistence of the caste system in India.  It is only because it is justified by and enshrined in the Hindu [13] religion that the caste system has managed to persist for over 3,000 years and into the modern age. The same it would seem is true of the role of Islam in the persistence of slavery in Mauritania.
By his intervention, the chairman could not have said more clearly that Islam was “guilty as charged”.
Notes
[1] Extract from http://www.amnesty-marseille.fr/spip.php?article185 [14]

 

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About raheelraza

Author, Public Speaker and Human Rights Advocate
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One Response to REPORTS FROM A VISIT TO UNHCR, GENEVA SEPT 2010

  1. Aizlynne says:

    Raheel.

    This type of discussion needs to be made more often. How successful you will be is yet to be seen as I don’t put a lot of credence into the Human Rights Council or the UN for that matter. But you are to be commended for your efforts to ensure freedom for all woman.

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