Discussion of religious questions now banned at UN Human Rights Council
by Roy Brown, former president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union
The UN Human Rights Council is not allowed to judge religions, according to president Doru Romulus Costea of Romania. Criticism of Sharia law or fatwas is now forbidden.
This ruling follows attempts by the Egyptian and Pakistani delegates at the Council to silence criticism of human rights abuse in the Islamic world.
The representative of the Association for World Education, in a joint statement with the International Humanist and Ethical Union, had denounced the stoning to death of women accused of adultery and of girls being married at the age of nine years old in countries where Sharia law applies.
The speaker, David Littman, was interrupted by no fewer than 16 points of order and the proceedings of the Council were suspended for forty minutes when the Egyptian delegate said that “Islam will not be crucified in this Council” and attempted to force a vote on whether the speaker should be allowed to continue.
On giving his ruling after the break Council President Costea said that the Council "is not prepared to discuss religious questions and we don’t have to do so". "Declarations must avoid judgments or evaluation about religion. … I promise that next time a speaker judges a religion or a religious law or document, I will interrupt him and pass on to the next speaker".
Litmann, who is also a representative for the World Union of Progressive Judaism, had been threatened before following a statement he made in January in which he had criticized the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, a matter deemed irrelevant by the Council in the debate condemning Israeli incursions into Gaza. When stopped, Litmann had opined that “there is something rotten in the state of this Council”. For this, the WUPJ had been threatened with expulsion form the UN and its president summoned to appear before the NGO Committee in New York and forced to apologise.
In commenting on Monday’s events at a press conference on Wednesday 18 June, outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, said: "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.” She did not refer specifically to the incident in the Council on Monday but she pointed to treatment of homosexuals in many countries -- prosecuted as criminals in a number of Islamic and some other states -- as "fundamental" to debate on sexual discrimination around the world. "It is difficult for me to accept that a Council that is the guardian of legality, prevents the presentation of serious analysis or discussion on questions of the evolution of the concept of non-discrimination,"
The affair has resulted in UN agency stories from AFP and ATS on 17 June, and again on 18 June from AFP, ATS, AP, Reuters, with quotes from President Costea, Louise Arbour. American Ambassador Warren Tichenor and Amnesty International.
The following comments on the events of June 16 at have been prepared by David G. Littman, NGO Representative of Association for World Education (AWE) and Roy W. Brown, Representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).
Shipwreck of the Human Rights Council
At 4:40 pm on June 16, David G. Littman was given the floor by the president of the UN Human Rights Council, to deliver a joint statement for the AWE and IHEU under agenda item 8: Integrating the Human Rights of Women throughout the United nations system.
Within 22 seconds, he was stopped – on a ‘point of order’ – by the delegate of Egypt. The verbatim transcript lasting has been left exactly as it was spoken (less the 40 minute break) and it can be seen and heard on the UN webcast archive
by scrolling down to item 8 and the presentation by AWE..
At the Islamic summit in Mecca in December 2006, the OIC decided to adopt a policy of zero tolerance against any perceived insults to Islam as part of their overall strategy of advancing the cause of Islam worldwide. The measures agreed upon included creating an “Observatory” to monitor all reports of “Islamophobia”. Muslims throughout the world were to be encouraged to report any cases of perceived Islamophobia, however trivial. Cases submitted so far, for example, have included Muslims who have received “hostile glances”.
At that summit, two imams from Denmark presented the Danish cartoons (including some they had added themselves) and protests were then organised throughout the Middle East and elsewhere leading to a number of deaths and the burning of the Danish embassy in Beirut.
Plans were also put in place to seek changes in national and international law to provide additional “protection” for Islam. The battlegrounds were to include the European and national parliaments, and the UN, including the Human Rights Council. It was also proposed to move towards the creation of a new Charter of Human Rights in Islam, and the setting up of an Islamic Council of Human Rights to be based not on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but on Sharia law.
Fast forward 16 June 2008. The Egyptian delegate to the Human Rights Council, Amr Roshdy Hassan, saw an opportunity to wrong-foot the Council by attacking the statement by AWE/IHEU. Egypt had prepared their ground carefully, breaking protocol by arranging to receive advance copies of our statements, and finding in our statement on violence against women exactly what they were looking for. David Littman with whom they had quarrelled in the past was to be the speaker, the statement made explicit reference to Sharia law, whilst the Egyptian complaint was likely to be seen by Western delegates as a further attempt to silence a particularly vocal critic. The OIC however would present the statement as a clear attack on Islam, and by forcing a vote would, in the eyes of the Islamic world, have exposed those who voted in favour of the statement being allowed to continue, as being “anti-Islamic”. In the words of Amr Roshdy Hassan, they “will have to face the consequences”. In making his case however, Hassan stretched the truth almost beyond breaking point. He claimed that the first paragraph speaks about Egypt and Sharia law. In fact it makes no mention of the Sharia. He claimed that the second paragraph talks about Sudan, Pakistan and Sharia law. It too makes no mention of Sharia. Unfortunately, none of the other delegates had copies of the statement and were therefore unable to give the lie to these claims. The implication of the Egyptian complaint is that it is not necessary for Sharia law to be mentioned explicitly. It is enough that a speaker criticises any human rights abuse sanctioned by the Sharia to be accused of insulting Islam and being forced to stop. The third and fourth paragraphs of the statement do however mention the Sharia specifically, in connection with the marriage of girls as young as nine years of age, and the stoning of women to death for adultery, in States that apply Sharia law. This was what clearly part of what Egypt had hoped to suppress.
The temperature was raised even further when the Pakistani delegate Imran Ahmed Siddiqui speaking for Pakistan said in another point of order that the statement “will amount to spreading hatred against certain members of the Council”.
When Hassan, called for a vote, saying he would not see “Islam crucified in the Council”, the President wisely called for a five minute adjournment “in order to seek a better judgement”. But forty minutes later when proceedings resumed the President’s final ruling was seen to be a complete capitulation to the Egyptian demands. He said: “The Council is not prepared to discuss religious questions and we don’t have to do so. Declarations must avoid judgments or evaluation about religion”.
Egypt and the OIC had achieved a major objective. But their secondary objective - to be able to present Canada, the EU and other Western States as anti-Islamic – that will have to wait for another day.
The full transcript together with the full text of the AWE/IHEU statement is is given below.
United Nations Human Rights Council
8th Session (2 to 18 June 2008). Agenda item 8:
Follow-up and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action: Integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations system (§141)
Proceedings from 16:40 to 18:05, Monday, 16 June 2008
Joint statement by the Association for World Education and the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Speaker: AWE representative David G. Littman.
AWE / IHEU: Mr. President. In the context of integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations system, we wish to draw attention to four examples of widespread violence against women that we believe merits far greater attention from the Council.
1. Regarding FGM, we are making available our detailed written statement. [gavel]
President (Ambassador Doru Romulus Costea of Romania): We have a point of order. Egypt, you have the floor Sir.
Egypt:[Amr Roshdy Hassan] Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, I have a copy of this statement by the speaker1. It is identical to the one made in December2, to which I made five points of order, to which you ruled…that you warned the speaker in December that this would be the last warning. The first paragraph, you talk about Egypt and the Sharia law3. In the second paragraph you talk about Sudan, Pakistan and the Sharia law4. The third and fourth paragraphs are on the Sharia law. So I don’t know what is the point of making him continue his statement while we know it will be objective [sic] and while we know that the president made a ruling on the same statement in December5. If we have no time to come on something new, then we shouldn’t speak. Thank you”
President: Thank you. I have a… Do I see any other requests from the floor on this matter? Pakistan, you have the floor.
Pakistan: [Imran Ahmed Siddiqui] Thank you very much Mr. President. Mr. President, the voices which we hear in this Council and the issues they raise are not unfamiliar. There is an agenda behind it and you have already given a ruling on the discussion of Sharia law in this Council6. We have strong objections on any discussion, any direct or indirect discussion, any out of context, selective discussion on the Sharia law in this Council. I would therefore request the president to exercise his judgement and authority and request the speaker not to touch issues which have already been debarred from discussion in this Council. Thank you very much, Sir.
President: The distinguished representative of Slovenia
Slovenia: Thank you Mr. President. I would remind both colleagues from Egypt and from Pakistan, this is a separate Council session. Any NGO representative has the right to make a statement within the merits of the agenda item under discussion. We see the statement being made pertaining within the purview of the agenda item and we don’t see grounds for any restricting censorship in that respect. I thank you Mr. President.
President: Thank you. Distinguished representative of Egypt
Egypt: Mr. President, through you Sir, please Sir, I would humbly and kindly ask my colleague from Slovenia to reconsider. What we are talking now about is not about the right of NGOs to speak but about the Sharia law and whether it is admissible to discuss it in this Council. I appeal to my colleague from Slovenia not to accept any discussion of the Sharia law in this Council because it will not happen. And we will not take this lightly. This is not about NGOs participation in the Council. Before the speaker… before that, one spoke as freely as we want on sexual orientation, gays and lesbians, yes, because they see it under the VDPA (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action) and they have been touching on the VDPA and nobody objected. This is not about NGOs and their participation in the Council. This is about the Sharia law. So I appeal to our colleagues not to get us there because we will stay there and it’s a good omen that we have these beautiful machines with us here because we will need them. [While concluding, he waves the small ‘voting’ machine in the air, triumphantly.] Thank you.
President: Thank you. I don’t see requests. [He looks up and sees a delegate signalling for the floor. We cannot see who it is on the video – perhaps Iran, which is not a member]. You do not have the right of point of order Sir, you are not a member of the Council, with all due respect… Pakistan.
Pakistan: Mr. President, very respectfully I would like to state again that this is not the forum to discuss religious sensitivity. It will amount to spreading hatred against certain members of the Council. I mean, it has happened before also that selective discussions were raised in the Council to demonise a particular group. So we would again request you to please use your authority to bar any such discussion again, at the Council. Thank you very much.
President: I think that we are going downwards on quite a slippery slope here. Personally, I see two issues. One is whether we should or not discuss religious issue in a debate under the Vienna Declaration. Two is whether we shall exercise a sort of pre-emptive move against statements that may be, or may not be heard in this room… Canada.
Canada: Thank you Mr. President. We are having a general debate on the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. The issues that are being raised here fall entirely within the scope of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. They concern rights. We consider it entirely appropriate that the NGO in question be permitted to continue. If we were, all of us, to not repeat anything that we had said before in a Council session, the sessions would be an awful lot shorter than they actually are. Thank you, Mr. President.
President: Egypt and then Slovenia.
Egypt: Mr. President, I am not speculating. I have a copy of this statement. I have listened carefully to the first paragraph. I did not interrupt. I tell you it was clear that the copy that I have in my hand. I am telling my colleagues from Canada and Slovenia so that everyone will bear the consequences, that this statement is about the Sharia law. I don’t want anybody to say that they didn’t know in advance. I have a copy here. If anybody doesn’t believe me they can take a look at the statement. This statement will not be read in this Council without a vote. Thank you.
President: I would very kindly suggest that we sort of take a break. And come back in five minutes, in order to seek a better judgement. This meeting is suspended. [gavel].
[About 40 minutes later the meeting continued.]
President: Thank you for your understanding. We will resume and I will…there was also another request for the right of a…for a point of order that I have inadvertently missed. The delegation of Iran, you have the floor, Sir. [Iran is not a member of the Council]
Iran: Thank you Mr President. Actually I requested the floor for raising the point of order in support of what has been said by Egypt and by Pakistan, but apparently it was not acceptable so that was all. Thank you.
President: Thank you. Well, I hereby say that it was accepted and this is why I said I inadvertently missed it. I apologise to you for this procedural faux pas. Ladies and gentlemen, no need to hide behind whatever, so I will just ask your attention. Let me recall that before we suspended this meeting I made a remark and that remark has two points. One of the points was a warning on what the debate in this Council should not – repeat, should not – slip into. I warned, and I think I am in agreement with all of you here, that this Council is not prepared to discuss matters…religious matters in depth. Consequently we should not do it. I would like to recall what I said in a previous session, and it is in our record, on the 13th of March. “As long as a statement…made with restraint from making a judgement, or evaluation of a particular set of legislation, which is not in the point of our discussion, the speaker may continue.” It was among… within a circumstance that was quite similar as the same in which we are today. Having said that, I will give back the floor to the representative of the NGO in question, with the understanding that as long as the statement will restrain from making a judgement or evaluation of any particular set of legislation which is, indeed, not the point of our discussion, this statement may continue. Distinguished representative of Egypt, you have the floor.
Egypt: Thank you, Mr. President. Now you have made your ruling we will listen attentively to the statement. At the first attempt to link any bad practices to a certain religion, in any way, we will reply to your ruling. Thank you.
President [showing indignation]: Thank you… May I say for the record as well, that I was in much more comfortable positions …in this chair … than this position … when … a statement of mine is challenged point blank…Thank you. You have the floor, Sir.
AWE / IHEU: Thank you very much, Mr. President. Regarding FGM, our detailed written statement discusses the reasons why 96% of Egyptian women are still subjected to FGM despite State legislation in 1997 outlawing the practice. “Almost 90% of the female population in the north of Sudan undergo FGM which, in many cases, is practised in its most extreme form known as infibulation” – we are quoting from the Report by the Special Rapporteur Halima Warzazi. UNICEF figures indicate that over 3 million young girls are mutilated each year in 32 countries, 29 of which are Member States of the OIC. We believe that only a fatwa from Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Sayyad Tantawi – replacing the ambiguous fatwas of 1949, 1951 and 1981 – will change this barbaric, criminal practice, which is now growing even in Europe. [Gavel – the president then gives the floor to Egypt for a point of order]
Egypt: Mr President, with all due respect I would like to challenge your ruling and according to rule 115 we should proceed to a vote now. This is an attempt to raise a bad traditional practice to Islam. Sheikh [of] Al-Azar is the president of the largest and the biggest and the oldest Islamic university in the world. This is not the understanding we had when you allowed this speaker to continue. I am afraid I will have no other option but to challenge your ruling regardless of the result of the challenge…of the rule [jabbing right forefinger on the desk].
President: I am sorry. I didn’t understand the last part.
Egypt: My last part, Sir, is that is regardless of the result of the vote, I couldn’t care less if I will win or lose this vote. My point is that Islam will not be crucified in this Council. That’s why we are challenging this ruling, and the result of the vote will be indicative to what all delegations think on this issue and it will be a matter of discussion later between the OIC and the other… our colleagues from other groups. Thank you.
President: All right. Let me have a look at what I have said and also have a look at what the speaker has just read.
[Meeting halted briefly and then resumed. The floor then given to Germany for a point of order.]
Germany: Mr. President, I would kindly, through you, ask the Egyptian delegation and its representative if I did understand in his last intervention…he seemed to have said, and I quote, and I apologise if I did not understand this correctly – my understanding was, quote: “Islam will not be crucified in this Council”. And I would like this statement confirmed and if it is confirmed I would ask you, Mr. President, whether you consider this appropriate with regard to the question of mentioning religion and its symbols?
President: Thank you. Before giving the floor to the Egyptian… distinguished…Egyptian delegate, I would kindly ask everybody … to take a deep breath. [light laughter]. Let’s try and get back to our normal mode, to our decent and reasonable approach of topics that are sensitive, sure [?]. Distinguished delegate of Egypt, you have the floor, Sir.
Egypt: Mr. President, abiding by the first and the second rulings you’ve made which are not different, in my opinion, I would ask to delete any references to the fatwa of Sheikh Al-Azhar [Grand Sheikh Sayyad Tantawi] and to delete all references to Sheikh Al-Azhar from this paragraph and from the official records of the meeting. Thank you.
[The president again gives the floor to the NGO speaker]
AWE / IHEU: “The Government of Pakistan vigorously condemns the practice of so-called ‘Honour Killings’ and that such actions do not find any place in our religion or law.” – this is a quotation from President Mussharaf on 28 April 2000. Yet this murderous practice seems to be on the increase in Pakistan and elsewhere – even in Europe in certain communities. It must be criminalised and the law strictly applied.
The stoning of women for alleged adultery still occurs regularly in Iran, Sudan and other countries. In Iran, they are buried up to their waists in pits and blunt stones are used thereby increasing their agony in death.
The marriage age for girls in Iran remains at 9 years old. In the year 2000, the Iranian Parliament attempted to increase the age to 14 but the law was overturned by the Council of Guardians. Last week … [The President recognized a point of order]
Iran: Thank you Mr President. With all respect to your rule and to yourself, Mr. President, the statement and the references made by this speaker in this statement is false and has nothing to do with the realities in my country. I just wanted, for the record… he said that…“the stoning of women for adultery still occurs regularly in Iran” – it’s not true, it is completely false, and is out of the question. Thank you.
President: Thank you. I thought you were asking the floor for a point of order, Sir, and it would have been granted to you. I think that what you said amounts to a right of reply – which is still a right you can exercise, if you request it, at the end of the consideration of this item. So I just wanted to highlight this situation to you. Cuba raises a point of order.
Cuba: Point of order in Spanish. [No translation on the webcast of this point of order.This is an unofficial translation.]
I’m not going to refer to the contents of what this gentleman said. In the first place, we are exposed to bad practices, which lead to stopping the procedures of the Commission [Council].
Also to the suspension of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action by this NGO, and
the introduction of item 4 issues of the Agenda [“country situations.”] I think he is off the agenda item  and its subject. He must stop his intervention. Please interrupt him and make him utilise item 4 which will come up in the September session [of the Council].
suggested that the matters under discussion should have been raised under item 4 of the agenda, and referred to the AWE speaker as having caused another NGO (meaning WUPJ) to lose its accreditation to the UN. In fact, although Cuba, representing the Non-Aligned Movement, had attempted to have WUPJ’s accreditation revoked, they had failed 10 days before]
President: Thank you. Before going on with the list of points of order, may I recall that a similar debate occurred in this Council some time ago and then we emphasised that in approaching item 8 which is the implementation of the Vienna Declaration and its programme of Action, we may refer to the way in which various rights in these documents are implemented – because this is what we are doing. Having said that, we cannot refer to these implementations in abstract. We agreed that it may be exemplified. So from this point of view, we have heard in this statement so far, two or three examples which would – to my reading – not qualify this statement as an item 4 statement. It is not a country situation. We have two requests of rights of…of points of order, Slovenia and Jordan. Slovenia.
Slovenia: Thank you very much, Mr. President. First I would like to clarify that the EU agrees with your ruling, that you have made, and I would also like to make clear that the EU is not linking in any way FGM with any religion or for that matter with Islam. Just for clarification, I would like to say this very clearly in this Council with regard to the last point of order we have heard, we again agree with the explanation you have just provided that, indeed, statements can be exemplified as long as they are linked to the agenda item at hand, and I would also like to reiterate that we are going to listen very carefully, with attention and with respect to any explanation that any delegation may wish to offer in replying to the statement being made or any other statements being made in the form of right of reply. I thank you very much.
(The webcast gives no intervention by Jordan, although Jordan did speak, but continues with the NGO speaker).
AWE / IHEU: Thank you Mr. President. Integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations System is part of item 8 under paragraph 140 . I will conclude Sir.
Last week, Nobel Peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, speaking in Geneva, denounced the fact that in Iran a girl is considered an adult and liable to punishment, even execution at 9 and a boy at 15. She rejects the concept of cultural relativism, as does the French Secretary of State for Urban Affairs, Fadela Amara, who recently strongly criticised the ruling of a French judge in Lille for annulling a marriage between two Muslims because the girl lied about her virginity in the marriage contract. Ms. Amara rightly called this aberration – and I quote – “a real fatwa against the emancipation [first gavel] and the liberty of women. [second gavel]. Thank you Mr. President. I was quoting a Minister in France.
President: Your time is up, Sir.
[The meeting closed at 18:05. Duration: 85 minutes, including 40 minute suspension]
1. This text should not have been made available to any delegate before being presented. Speakers are asked to provides 25 copies for the secretariat (interpreters, etc.), which are not intended for delegates.
2 It is not. None of the statements delivered by the speaker in December 2007 were on this subject.
3 He may have confused the dates. Perhaps on January 24 when speaking for the WUPJ on Hamas and advised to stop by the president; or on March 26 when speaking for the AWE when he was interrupted on a ‘point of order’ five times (3 times by Egypt, once by Palestine, once by Iran) when speaking on a different subject.
4 Sharia law is not mentioned in this paragraph. (See below)
5 Nor in this paragraph.
6 The ruling that he is referring to was made on 13 March when the same Pakistani representative raised a point of order in a statement on behalf of IHEU by Roy Brown. He said: “It is an insult to our faith to discuss Sharia law in this forum”. The President on that occasion did not prohibit discussion of the Sharia, but said that as long as the speaker refrains from making evaluative judgements of any system of law, he may continue”..
Below is the text handed to the Council Secretariat prior to the speech, which was delivered more or less entirely by the speaker
[Passages in bold italics and brackets were ‘deleted’ after the warning from the president]
In the context of integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations System, we wish to draw attention to four examples of widespread violence against women that we believe merit far greater attention from the Council.
1. Regarding FGM, we are making available our detailed written statement (*) The 1st interruption by the delegate of Egypt occurred here; 15 points of order followed, 7 by Egypt, and 11 replies from the president. [E/CN.4/Sub.2/2005/NGO/27: Background on “Traditional or Customary Practices” /Female Genital Mutilation and the Arabic text (& translations), certified by Al-Azhar University, the authoritative source for the Shafi’i school of Sunni law, widely adhered to in Egypt] which discusses the reasons why 96% of Egyptian women are still subjected to FGM despite State legislation in 1997 outlawing the practice [Sara Corbett, “A Cutting Tradition”, NYT, Sunday Magazine, 20 Jan. 2008].
“Almost 90% of the female population in the north of Sudan undergo FGM which, in many cases, is practised in its most extreme form known as infibulation” – we are quoting from the Report of Special Rapporteur Halima Warzazi [E/CN.4/Sub.2/2004/41, §24]. UNICEF figures indicate that over 3 million young girls are mutilated each year in 32 countries, 29 of which are Member States of the OIC. We believe that only a fatwa from Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Sayyad Tantawi – replacing the ambiguous fatwas of 1949, 1951 and 1981 – will change this barbaric, criminal practice, which is now growing even in Europe.
2. The number of “honour killings” is on the increase, worldwide. Ten years ago in 1998, there were a reported 300 cases of honour killings in one province of Pakistan alone [Mufti Ziauddin “Status of Court Cases for Murdered Women; and BBC film, Home programme, 8 April 2000.] On 28 April 2000, President Musharraf declared that “The Government of Pakistan vigorously condemns the practice of so-called ‘Honour Killings’ and that such actions do not find any place in our religion or law.” Yet this murderous practice seems to be on the increase in Pakistan and elsewhere – even in Europe in certain communities. It must be criminalised and the law strictly applied.
3. The stoning of women for alleged adultery still occurs regularly in Iran, Sudan and other [Muslim] countries [that apply Shari’a law]. In Iran, they are buried up to their waists in pits and [by law] blunt stones are used thereby increasing their agony in death.
4. The marriage age for girls in Iran remains at 9 years [based on Shari’a law]. In the year 2000, the Iranian Parliament attempted to increase the age to 14 but the law was overturned by the Council of Guardians, [claiming Quaranic justification] [“Islamic scholars have put a lot of efforts into these laws.”– “Iran Bill to End Marriage at 9. Guardian Consent Still Needed”, IHT, 10 August 2000] Last week, Noble Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, speaking in Geneva, denounced the fact that in Iran a girl is considered an adult and liable to punishment, even execution at 9, and a boy at 15. [Le Temps, 10 June 2008]. She rejects the concept of cultural relativism, as does the French Secretary of State for Urban Affairs, Fadela Amara, who recently strongly criticised the ruling of a French judge in Lille for annulling a marriage between two Muslims because the girl lied about her virginity in the marriage contract. Ms. Amara rightly called this aberration “a real fatwa against the emancipation and liberty of women.” [Steven Erlanger, “Muslim minister tackles French suburbs: Blunt talker refuses to accept ‘injustices’”, Int. Herald Tribune, 14-15 June 2008]
Thank you Mr. President.
19 June 2008