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Ibn Warraq, Michael Weiss
Inhuman Rights
The UN's Human Rights Council, friend to Islamists and tyrants everywhere

In December 2006, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an
international group established in 1971 and representing 57 countries,
hosted an emergency summit in Mecca. The event became infamous after two
angry imams from Denmark presented a dossier of cartoons published in
the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that mocked the Prophet Mohammed.
In the ensuing uproar, Muslims murdered several people in Europe and
torched the Danish embassy in Beirut.

But the cartoon episode wasn't the summit's starkest example of Muslim
outrage over free speech. The most critical decision that the OIC made
in Mecca was to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward perceived insults
to Islam. In its "Ten-Year Programme of Action," the OIC announced that
it would create an "observatory" to monitor acts of "Islamophobia." It
would also "endeavor to have the United Nations adopt an international
resolution to counter Islamophobia, and call upon all States to enact
laws to counter it, including deterrent punishments"—essentially the
goal of its nonbinding UN resolution on "combating defamation of
religions," which the UN's General Assembly adopted in March 2008. And
it would "participate and coordinate effectively in all regional and
international forums, in order to protect and promote the collective
interests of the Muslim Ummah, including UN reform [and] expanding the
Security Council membership."

The goal was simple: to infiltrate and weaken secular democratic
covenants and institutions from within, in a manner reminiscent of
revolutionary Marxist groups' "entryism" into the British Labour Party
in the seventies and eighties. The OIC's plan for implementing its
Islamist agenda hasn't succeeded on all fronts, of course. But it has
succeeded spectacularly on one: the United Nations Human Rights Council.

A subsidiary of the General Assembly, the Geneva-based Human Rights
Council (HRC) was reconstituted from the ashes of the previous
Commission on Human Rights. The 60-year-old commission had long been
criticized for ignoring atrocities and allowing membership to notorious
human rights violators—most notably, Sudan at the height of the Darfur
genocide. In 2006, the General Assembly, backed by then–secretary
general Kofi Annan, voted to scrap the commission.

The HRC was formed that March by a UN resolution, though the United
States, Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau voted against it. The
U.S. at present does not occupy a seat on the council because of the
Bush administration's skeptical view that the HRC would prove just as
ineffectual and biased as the former commission. Bush did license
American aid to the HRC, but in September 2007 the U.S. Senate voted to
cut that off, too.

In late March, however, the Obama administration announced that the U.S.
would seek a seat during the upcoming HRC elections in May. According to
Susan Rice, America's ambassador to the UN, "The U.S. is seeking
election to the council because we believe that working from within, we
can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human

This is going to be a daunting, if not hopeless, task. In its three-year
existence, the HRC has failed to show any improvement over its
predecessor—an unsurprising outcome, given its equally lax membership
standards. Of the HRC's 47 member states, only 23 live up to Freedom
House's definition of "free" countries. Fourteen qualify as "partly
free" and ten are "not free," with three of these—China, Cuba, and Saudi
Arabia—earning a spot in Freedom House's special report The Worst of the
Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies. China, Cuba, and Pakistan
haven't even ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, the primary legally binding human rights instrument in
international law.

The HRC has no legal authority. It passes nonbinding resolutions on what
it decides are human rights abuses and can only make recommendations to
the General Assembly. Nevertheless, its resolutions enjoy the UN
imprimatur, and it can legitimize barbarities simply by ignoring them.
If a dictator can claim in the international media that the HRC has
passed no resolutions against him, his job of maintaining the status quo
and lobbying against intervention in his country's affairs becomes that
much easier.

Delegates to the General Assembly elect states to the HRC by secret
ballot. But since regional "groups," like African states and Asian
states, automatically get a set number of seats on the HRC, the upshot
is that Islamic countries, together with non-Islamic members of the
Non-Aligned Movement, always control about two-thirds of the seats. As
Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union puts it:
"Voting, when it does occur, invariably results in a two-to-one defeat
for the Western liberal democracies."

No wonder the HRC has ignored some of the most gruesome atrocities in
the world. In 2007, it voted to remove its own human rights
investigators from Cuba and Belarus and now relies on official state
evidence—and, where available, countervailing evidence provided by
nonprofits—to adjudicate abuses in those notorious countries. The HRC
took the same decision of malign neglect in 2006, when Belarus, under
the dictatorship of the Soviet holdover Alexander Lukashenko, jailed
political dissidents and rigged its national elections. In December
2007, the HRC responded to the genocide in Darfur by recalling its team
of monitors from the region, an unconscionable betrayal that came after
Sudan's chief accomplices, Egypt and China, applied pressure in council
sessions. A Canadian proposal asking for war-crimes charges against
those responsible for the Darfur genocide was rejected in the HRC last
year, despite the UN's own fact-finding reports implicating the Khartoum
regime in mass murder, torture, and rape. The HRC's sole acknowledgment
of the genocide has been to echo the justifications of war criminals
throughout history and blame "all parties."

It is notable that five out of the council's ten special sessions have
been called to deal with Israeli actions, while not a single resolution
has gone on the books condemning crimes perpetrated by China, Zimbabwe,
Saudi Arabia, or, for that matter, Hamas and Hezbollah. In fact, one of
the HRC's most headline-grabbing moments came in March 2007, when Hillel
Neuer of the Geneva-based organization UN Watch presented a trenchant
indictment of the council itself for its singular focus on the Jewish
state. It marked the first time that the HRC had ever refused to thank a
speaker for his statement, as its president at the time, Luis Alfonso de
Alba of Mexico, proudly pointed out. (Speakers who have been thanked
include Cuban representatives claiming that reports of dissident
persecution were false; a Nigerian representative saying that "stoning
under sharia law for unnatural sexual acts should not be equated with
extrajudicial killings"; and an Iranian representative defending her
country's Holocaust-denial conference.)

But the HRC's most destructive acts to date, undercutting its entire
raison d'être, have come as the result of the OIC's Mecca summit. This
March, for example, th
e HRC adopted a resolution proposed by Pakistan
and sponsored by the OIC, entitled "Combating the Defamation of
Religions." Passed by a margin of 23 votes in favor, 11 against, and 13
abstentions, the resolution defines any intellectual or moral criticism
of religion—read: Islam—as a human rights violation, arguing that
since 9/11, the world has seen an "intensification of the overall
campaign of defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred
in general." The resolution expresses "deep concern" that
"extremist organizations and groups" seek to create and perpetuate
"stereotypes about certain religions." It goes on to urge states to
"deny impunity" to those guilty of words or deeds that the HRC deems
overly critical of religion, and it wants governments to ensure that
religious symbols "are fully respected and protected."

The HRC's resolution disturbingly misapplies the term "defamation," the
act of harming a reputation by libel or slander. Bodies of beliefs,
opinions, and symbols cannot be "defamed," according to any court of
law; only living individuals can. The European Union, along with India
and Canada, strongly assailed this endorsement of censorship, as did 207
nongovernmental organizations, including three from Muslim countries.

The resolution had been anticipated in another HRC action in 2008, and
again the OIC was the driving force. At the body's seventh session,
Canada had proposed to renew the mandate of the HRC's Special Rapporteur
on the Right to Freedom of Expression, an office charged with protecting
free speech and cataloging instances of its denial. On March 28, 2008,
every OIC member state sitting on the HRC—joined by China, Russia, and
Cuba—advanced an amendment to the original mandate. The Special
Rapporteur would now, these members suggested, have to report not only
violations of free expression but also "instances in which the abuse of
the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or
religious discrimination" (our italics). Islam would thus be placed
beyond scrutiny or censure, while people suffering at the hands of its
most reactionary exponents—should they live to complain about it—would
find themselves written down in the Special Rapporteur's little black book.

During the discussion that ensued, some Islamic states claimed that if
they refused to limit free expression, domestic extremists would run
riot, and the Danish cartoon row would become an everyday occurrence.
The opponents of the amendment, naturally, were advocates of
universality in law and liberty: members of the European Union, Canada,
the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Switzerland.
Nevertheless, the amendment was adopted in a vote of 27 to 17, with
three abstentions. The amended resolution then passed, 32 to zero, with
15 abstentions.

Impressively, international reaction was swift and condemnatory. "It is
very concerning in a Council which should be . . . the guardian of
freedom of expression, to see constraints or taboos, or subjects that
become taboo for discussion," said the outgoing UN high commissioner for
human rights, Louise Arbour of Canada. Forty organizations signed a
petition protesting the amendment. Among the signatories were groups
working in Islamic countries, including the Cairo Institute for Human
Rights Studies, the Darfur Bar Association, the Egyptian Association for
the Support of Democratic Development, and the Pakistan Press Foundation.

As the petition noted, the United Nations already contained a body, the
Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to
perform the duty now redundantly assigned to the Special Rapporteur.
Further, the amendment cast a sacrosanct Enlightenment principle in a
negative light. Free expression is often the sine qua non for ensuring
racial and religious equality, and yet here it was being interpreted as
an impediment to that equality. Finally, the amendment's prolix language
confused the import of previous covenants, such as the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which allows the restriction of
free expression only to protect individuals, not to protect
philosophies, religious traditions, or abstract dogmas. "Religious
believers have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of
their beliefs," the petition noted, "but religion itself cannot be set
free from criticism." Nowhere is it stipulated in any legitimate human
rights document that giving offense or challenging conventional wisdom
is off limits in oratory, journalism, literature, or art.

The HRC's promotion of what are, in effect, blasphemy taboos is a
logical extension of its internal policy. The HRC is run like an
oligarchy governed by Orwellian speech codes, with any criticism of the
body's behavior immediately stifled in session. In March 2008 testimony
to the HRC, for instance, Roy Brown mentioned that the Cairo Declaration
of Human Rights in Islam—passed and ratified by the OIC in 1990—took
sharia as its legal premise and was inimical to the UN's Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Brown was challenging a claim made
by Masood Khan, Pakistan's UN ambassador, who had told the council, on
behalf of the OIC, that the Cairo Declaration was a "complement" rather
than an alternative to the Universal Declaration. Immediately, Imran
Ahmed Siddiqui, the HRC delegate from Pakistan, issued a point of order,
silencing Brown, and announced: "It is insulting to our faith to discuss
sharia here in this forum." The president of the council at the time,
Doru Costea of Romania, ceded the point to Siddiqui.

Another person harassed was David Littman of the Association for World
Education. This past June, during the eighth session of the HRC, Littman
was scheduled to discuss the human rights of women in certain countries,
including Islamic ones. Among other things, Littman's testimony
criticized human rights abuses resulting from the implementation of
sharia—in particular, the forced marriage of Muslim girls as young as
nine and the stoning of women for adultery, practices that cannot be
adequately described without reference to the Koran. In stark violation
of the rules, which state that no delegate can receive transcripts of
forthcoming testimony, Amr Roshdy Hassan of Egypt had somehow obtained
an advance copy of Littman's speech. Hassan and others interrupted
Littman a total of 16 times. The testimony, which should have taken only
a few minutes to give, was prolonged to about two hours by various
points of order and an extended 40-minute recess.

Backing up Hassan was Siddiqui, who claimed that Littman's statement
would "amount to spreading hatred against certain members of this
Council." Upon returning from the 40-minute recess, Costea ruled that
the "Council is not prepared to discuss . . . religious matters in
depth," and reiterated with strange grammar and even stranger logic a
ruling from an earlier session: "As long as a statement is made with
restraint from making a judgment or evaluation of a particular set of
legislation which is not in the point of our discussion, the speaker may

Littman did continue—by pointing out that in Iran and Sudan, women are
buried up to their waists in pits and pummeled to death with blunt
stones for the crime of infidelity, and that 96 percen
t of Egyptian
women are still subjected to female genital mutilation, despite state
legislation formally banning the practice (note that the HRC does permit
a "judgment" or "evaluation" of secular legislation pertaining to human
rights abuses). But the instant Littman suggested that only a fatwa
issued by Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, an influential Egyptian cleric, could
reverse this ghastly trend, Hassan once more interjected, demanding a
vote on Littman's testimony. "I will not see Islam crucified in the
Council," he declaimed. But asking an Islamic cleric to intervene to
stop a human rights abuse is hardly a crucifixion of Islam.

The OIC's members are wise to stifle any allusion to its own "human
rights" documents in the HRC. If speakers like Brown were allowed to
delve into the nitty-gritty of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in
Islam during a council session, they would easily show how it proscribes
far more than it permits. Article 22 of the declaration, which defines
free speech, stipulates:

(a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in
such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari'ah.

(b) Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and
propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil
according to the norms of Islamic Sha-ri'ah.

(c) Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be
exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the
dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate,
corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.

(d) It is not permitted to arouse nationalistic or doctrinal hatred
or to do anything that may be an incitement to any form of racial

A Muslim scholar who critically examines the Koran as a historical text
would find little in the Cairo Declaration protecting his free speech
and much curtailing it. An agnostic doubting the prophethood or virtue
of Mohammed would be similarly at risk.

As for bona fide apostates, the Cairo Declaration gives them no quarter.
"Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature," Article 10 states. "It is
prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his
poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to
atheism." In Islam, it is assumed that only compulsion or ignorance
could lead a believer to abandon his faith or to convert to another
religion, both offenses punishable by death. The Cairo Declaration,
then, amounts to a preemptive license for Muslim governments to murder
missionaries or advocates of agnosticism or atheism.

One needn't be a student of international law or an exegete of the Koran
to see the poverty of these precepts when compared with the clear and
precise language of the UDHR, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last
year. Articles 18 and 19 of the most translated document in the world
(according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) read:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and
religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief,
and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or
private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice,
worship and observance.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this
right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to
seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and
regardless of frontiers.

Anyone who tries testifying to the council that the Cairo Declaration,
which claims to complement these noble ideals, actually contradicts
them—or that it cannot possibly complement them, since it is based on
sharia, which affirms the inferiority of women and non-Muslims—will now
be silenced.

The Obama administration's quest for a seat at the council might prove
useful in exposing the HRC to greater media scrutiny. But U.S.
participation could inculpate America in every sinister resolution that
the HRC advances and lend the council greater legitimacy on the world stage.

How can the ongoing disgrace of the HRC be rectified? One remedy might
be to establish stricter prerequisites for HRC membership, such as being
a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
and a party to the theory and practice of self-determination and freedom
of speech, which also means freedom from religious injunctions. Member
states might also be required to conduct transparent and independent
internal investigations into human rights abuses occurring within their
own borders.

During his presidential campaign, Republican senator John McCain
advocated forming a League of Democracies that would work independently
of the UN (though not replace it) to hold dictatorial or totalitarian
regimes to account, impose economic sanctions on rogue states, and
provide succor to targets of ethnic cleansing or genocide. With its
strict rules for membership, such a multinational assembly would be free
of internal obstruction by states like Russia and China, and would thus
be in a better position to uphold human rights.

The League—which Anthony Lake, who has advised Barack Obama, also
favors—might even create its own counterweight to the HRC, a body in
which symbolic victories for human rights could take place outside the
twilight zone of Islamic interference.

At the close of World War II, Bertrand Russell observed that the human
species was historically unwilling to acquiesce to its own survival. An
intellectual accomplice in this ongoing suicide pact is surely cultural
relativism, an invention of Western liberalism that non-Western
reactionaries have taken up as a license to kill and butcher people in
peace and quiet. There has been no worse exemplar of this fatal tendency
than the UN Human Rights Council.

Ibn Warraq is a senior fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational.
He is the author of five books on Islam and Koranic criticism, including
Why I Am Not a Muslim. Michael Weiss is an editor at Nextbook. His
writing has appeared in Slate, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion,
Standpoint, the New York Sun, and elsewhere.

Inhuman Rights by Ibn Warraq, Michael Weiss, City Journal Spring 2009
(18 May 2009)

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