International Sponsors Should Pull Out

GENEVA, Nov. 21 – As Western countries seek to have the UN condemn Iran for abusing human rights, a Tehran “human rights” center is to hold inaugural global conferences this week in a stepped-up bid to erode universal rights in favor of a “cultural diversity” doctrine which the EU fears could justify the repression of basic freedoms, said UN Watch today.

The International Committee for the Red Cross and a leading human rights authority, London-based William Schabas, have given their credibility to the conferences at the Iranian-sponsored Center for Human Rights and Cultural Diversity in Tehran — despite the center’s aim of elevating “cultural diversity” to the point of permitting individual rights to be restricted by the alleged demands of religion or culture.

In an op-ed appearing in today’s New York Daily News, UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer argues that the Nov. 22 and 24 gatherings cannot easily be ignored. While spearheaded by Iran and Cuba, the center is officially an initiative of the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), whose membership of mainly non-democratic countries controls almost two thirds of UN General Assembly votes.

“The term ‘cultural diversity’ has a ring of political correctness to it,” said Neuer, “but it’s being used cynically by authoritarian regimes in a growing campaign at the UN to justify the restriction of their own citizens’ rights to freedom of speech, assembly and religion, under the argument that universal protections don’t apply in certain cultures.”

Given the menacing nature of the center’s ideological mission, Neuer says it is “incomprehensible” for reputedly mainstream human rights voices to participate in its events.

Schabas – author of numerous textbooks on international humanitarian law, chair of a UN human rights fund and president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars – is billed as keynote speaker at the first of the conferences, to open tomorrow. The center says the ICRC is working “in cooperation” with it to stage both conferences this week – as is an institution Schabas directed for a decade and still chairs, the Irish Center for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

“At a time when the Iranian regime continues to arrest, beat and rape its own citizens, and the universality of human rights remains tenuous in too many countries, both the ICRC and Schabas should do the right thing and pull out of this insidious project,” Neuer said.

“It’s one thing for the ICRC to deal with dubious regimes as part of its mission to help war victims everywhere, but it’s quite another thing for the humanitarian organization to willingly lend its name to what is clearly an effort by Iran, Cuba and the center’s other NAM backers to subvert the Red Cross’s own universal ideals.”

The ICRC has prior connections with the center. In June, the ICRC’s Delegate for Islamic Affairs in Tehran, John Strick van Linschoten, delivered a presentation at the center that emphasized ICRC operations in favour of victims in Islamic states and the importance of seeing the Shiite “point of view.” In 2008, the ICRC as well as Schabas’ Irish institute co-sponsored a seminar with the Iranian centre’s director entitled “60th Anniversary of the Occupation of Palestine.”

The first of the conferences is set to begin after a Western-led bid today in a key UN General Assembly committee to have Iran condemned – as in previous years – for its poor human rights record. Also, the General Assembly on Friday voted 106-9, with 40 abstentions, to condemn Iran for an alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington.

The new center’s founding document proclaims that human rights should defer to “the significance of national and regional particularities” and “various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.”

“Implicit in the center’s manifesto is the idea that the world should give a free pass to the oppressive rulers of the likes of Iran, Syria, Cuba, China and Zimbabwe due to their alleged ‘cultural’ differences,” said Neuer.

Schabas, born in the United States, but a citizen of Canada and Ireland, has a personal connection: the center’s current director, Kamran Hashemi, wrote his PhD under the academic at the Irish Center for Human Rights, and later taught there. Schabas currently serves as a professor at Middlesex University in London.

Hashemi argues on the Tehran center’s website that Sharia is the world’s best legal system to protect Jews and other minorities, Neuer notes in his commentary.

The center, meanwhile, is getting into full swing just months after countries acting on behalf of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) ended – at least for now – their separate effort to recast universal human rights principles at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

That bid had involved winning UN resolutions over a decade that contained demands to combat “defamation of religion,” particularly Islam.

Western countries opposed the measures, saying human rights protections extend only to individuals, and warned that protecting a belief could lead to persecution of people criticizing or not following that faith.

The OIC – which now calls itself the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – faced the prospect of an embarrassing defeat in March after Western campaigning led to a fall in global support. But the Tehran center – by focusing on “cultural diversity” – effectively picks up the baton.

In a recent UN debate on cultural rights, the EU warned against “diffuse and dangerous notions of cultural relativism,” and noted that “some cultural practices violate human rights.”


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