What’s the difference?

The Cairo Declaration differs sharply from the Universal Declaration overall in its emphatic rejection of universalism, in rejecting the UD’s ‘without exception’ in favour of firm, decided exceptions. In the detail, the CD differs from the UD in its avoidance of clarity, precision and openness and hence accountability and reliability. The Cairo Declaration injects exceptions into its concept of human rights, without spelling out exactly what they entail; this introduces a whole new element of doubt, uncertainty and fear into what is supposed to be a human rights document. Worse, it presents itself as a human rights document (of sorts) when in fact it puts anyone who subscribes to it in the position of (perhaps unknowingly) endorsing laws, restrictions and punishments that are human rights violations rather than human rights.

The raison d’être of the Cairo Declaration is the idea that the Universal Declaration is not in fact universal – that it is ‘Western’ and Judeo-Christian, that it does not work for non-Western cultures, that it ‘could not be implemented by Muslims,’ in the words of the Iranian representative to the UN. So by comparing the two and finding how they differ it is possible to figure out what – in the view of the people who drew up the Cairo Declaration and those who signed on to it, at least – can be ‘implemented by Muslims.’

We find out, generally, via Articles 24 and 25, that all rights are subject to Sharia, and via the Cairo Declaration as a whole, we find out that the authors are willing to make human rights subordinate to Sharia without ever spelling out what that could mean, what it presumably means, what in many countries governed by Sharia it in fact does mean. The Cairo Declaration doesn’t mention stoning to death for adultery, or the death penalty for apostasy, or forced marriage, or child marriage, or guardian laws, or laws forbidding women to travel, work, or go to school without male permission. The Cairo Declaration rejects the Universal Declaration, and stands out for its own version of human rights, yet it does it in a secretive way.

In fact it is difficult not to conclude that the authors of the Cairo Declaration did not start with first principles and attempt to create the best human rights document they could, but rather that they started with existing regimes and legal codes in existing majority-Muslim countries, and then wrote the Cairo Declaration so that it would match the existing laws – adding 24 and 25 at the end in case they’d left anything out. This is bad enough, and the fact that this is done without transparency makes it even worse. The Cairo Declaration takes a declaration of rights that is, deliberately, as clear and open and explicit as possible, and renders it vague instead of precise, obscure instead of clear, tacit instead of explicit. It injects an element – a large element – of uncertainty, blurring, non-precision, danger, threat; in article after article, it merely invokes Sharia without saying what that means. With the Universal Declaration we know where we are and with the Cairo Declaration we don’t – the rights are limited, and in ways that are not specified or spelled out. The Universal Declaration is both general and specific; the Cairo Declaration is particular where the Universal Declaration is general and vague where the UD is precise.

The result is that the Cairo Declaration does away with the transparency, clarity, and specificity and hence the accountability and also the confidence. With the Universal Declaration it is easy to understand what is meant. With the Cairo Declaration, repeatedly, there is a trap door: an impossibility of knowing what is meant. We go from open, clear, spelled out intentions, which are clearly meant to maximize the well-being of all people, without exceptions, to secretive, cryptic, frightening stipulations whose benevolence is by no means clear.

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