Islamic solidarity distorts the debate
Representing nearly a quarter of the commission, the Islamic states form a sufficiently cohesive group for them to avoid any criticism on human rights. Most of them can treat women as second-class citizens, trample on the rights of minorities or maintain corporal punishments under the sharia without any sign of concern from the commission. Despite damning reports, Saudi Arabia remains untouchable, as does Algeria, where more than 200,000 persons died in an internal conflict over the past decade. Nonetheless, according to a report on the Arab world published in Cairo in July 2002 by the United Nations Development Programme, the countries of this region have the lowest level of freedom in the world and the situation of women is especially problematic.
A resolution on “combating defamation of religions” proved even more revealing. Presented by Pakistan on behalf of the member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), it was adopted by 32 to 14 with 7 abstentions. It mentions only Islam, and the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism is asked to investigate only “the situation of the Muslim and Arab populations in various regions of the world,” although he was already asked to produce a report on this very topic for the commission’s 59th session. It is as if only Muslims are the victims of religious intolerance, and not Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews,
animists, other kinds of religious believers or atheists.
Special rapporteurs criticised
The rapporteurs are no longer safe from condemnation by commission members. The current special rapporteur on racism, Doudou Diène of Senegal, took over in 2002 from Maurice Glélé-Ahanhanzo, a member of Benin’s supreme court, who was summarily dismissed for referring in a report to a document which the OIC regards as a “blasphemy against the Koran.” Among other attacks on special rapporteurs, Algerian ambassador Mohamed Dembri distinguished himself in 2003 by questioning the independence and impartiality of the special rapporteur on torture, Théo van Boven, because of claims that he was hired by an NGO.
Dembri also accused him of taking unverified allegations as proven, and demanded his resignation. It should be pointed out that Algeria has never agreed to receive visits from the special representative about torture, executions or involuntary disappearances.
In his report, Van Boven had mentioned the amputation of limbs carried in some countries and cases of women being stoned to death for alleged adultery, especially in Sudan. Now that the mandate for Sudan has been terminated because the relevant resolution was rejected, only 10 of the UN’s 193 member states are under investigation for human rights violations (Afghanistan, Burma, Burundi, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Israel Liberia and Somalia).
A large number of the many resolutions adopted did not contain any significant undertaking and were unlikely to have any consequences. This is the case with the resolution on the “right to freedom of opinion and expression,” adopted without a vote, in which the commission “voices its continuing concern at the extensive occurrence of detention, extrajudicial killing, torture, intimidation, persecution and harassment, abuse of legal provisions on defamation and criminal libel as well as on surveillance, search and seizure, and censorship, threats and acts of violence and of discrimination, often undertaken with impunity, against persons, including professionals in the field of information, who exercise the right to freedom of
opinion and expression…” As if it was sometimes worth saying what goes without saying.
The resolution went on to urge all states “to respect freedom of expression in the media and broadcasting, and in particular, to respect the editorial independence of the media, and to encourage a diversity of ownership of media and of sources of information…” This was a fine lesson in hypocrisy as it did not require states to implement this catalogue of good intentions.
The same unanimity was obviously not reached on the death penalty, which is paradoxically a controversial issue in this body supposedly given over to ensuring respect for the basic right to life. A resolution presented by the European Union called for a moratorium in the implementation of the death penalty and invited all countries that had not yet done so to sign the second optional protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at abolishing the death penalty. Most of the 28 countries backing the resolution came from Europe and Latin America. The United States voted against the proposal along with 17
other members of the commission including Islamic countries, China, Vietnam and
Zimbabwe. Although it had just carried out three executions, Cuba preferred to abstain and did not participate in the vote.
17 members refuse to link human rights to democracy
Seventeen of the commission’s 53 members showed their true colours by abstaining in the vote on a resolution about “the interdependence between democracy and human rights,” one that should have gone without saying. Just reaffirming the principles of the Universal Declaration and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the resolution declared that: “the essential elements of democracy include respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, inter alia freedom of association, freedom of expression and opinion,
and also include access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage and by secret ballot as the expression of the will of the people, a pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, transparency and accountability in public administration, and free, independent and pluralistic media.” It was clearly too much for the 17 countries that abstained: Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Burkina Faso, China, Cuba, Gabon, Libya, Malaysia, Uganda, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland, Togo and Vietnam.
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