One at a time, please

Beware of ‘religious and cultural specificity.’ Beware especially when religious and cultural specificity is invoked in the context of human rights. Religiously and culturally specific human rights are not the real thing, they are impostors wrapped up in burqas. The International Humanist and Ethical Union knows.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) representing the 56 Islamic States renewed its attack on the Universality of Human Rights at the 6th Session of the Human Rights Council that ended on 14 December. On Human Rights Day, 10 December, Ambassador Masood Khan, speaking on behalf of the OIC, claimed that the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam “.. is not an alternative, competing worldview on human rights. It complements the Universal Declaration as it addresses religious and cultural specificity of the Muslim countries”.

No, it doesn’t; it doesn’t complement, it competes; it contradicts, it denies, it deprives, it prevents.

Even a cursory reading of the Cairo Declaration shows just how widely its definition of human rights differs from those of the UDHR. No “complementary” document (the word implies adding to, not subtracting from) should restrict the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Yet this is precisely what the Cairo Declaration does. Under Shari’ah law a woman has no personal autonomy. A women’s word or the word of a non-Muslim counts as half that of a Muslim man; and they are valued as half that of a Muslim man. No woman is considered an autonomous individual but needs a guardian: her father, husband, son or another male relative, and may not make autonomous decisions. Freedom of religion is limited to freedom to become and remain a Muslim. Apostasy and any actions or statements considered blasphemous are harshly punished, in some states by death.

Oh that kind of religious and cultural specificity.

On 18 December 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution “Combating Defamation of Religions” by 108 votes to 51 with 25 abstentions…The resolution expresses “deep concern about the negative stereotyping of religions and manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in matters of religion or belief”. But the only religion mentioned by name is Islam…The Western delegations stood firm, however, in their opposition to this resolution. The Portuguese delegate, speaking for the EU, explained clearly why: “The European Union does not see the concept of ‘defamation of religions’ as a valid one in a human rights discourse. From a human rights perspective, members of religious or belief communities should not be viewed as parts of homogenous entities. International human rights law protects primarily individuals in the exercise of their freedom of religion or belief, rather than the religions as such.”

Human rights are for humans, not for groups. Human rights are for individuals, not for groups. The IHEU ends on a depressing note…

Notwithstanding these objections, those opposing the resolution found themselves on the losing side of a two-to-one majority in favour. The implications of this resolution for freedom to criticise religious laws and practices are obvious. Armed with UN approval for their actions, states may now legislate against any show of disrespect for religion, however they may choose to define “disrespect”. The Islamic states see human rights exclusively in Islamic terms, and by sheer weight of numbers this view is becoming dominant within the UN system. The implications for the universality of human rights are ominous.

10 Responses to “One at a time, please”