Issue 16: A UN seminar in Geneva on perspectives of Islamic law and human rights

A seminar entitled “Enriching the Universality of Human Rights: Islamic Perspectives on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” organized by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), took place on November 9-10 in Geneva. Twenty Islamic scholars presented papers on perspectives of Islamic law and human rights.

Analysis: The aim of the conference, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was to “provide a framework for a better understanding of the significance of cultural and religious backgrounds to the Universal Declaration.”

During the seminar, Member States, non-governmental organizations, and interested observers were not allowed to speak or to contribute in any way. The experts alone delivered papers on Islamic law reflecting three general themes, set against the backdrop of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: non discrimination; civil and political rights; and economic, social and cultural rights.

By the benchmark of its stated intentions, the seminar was a  successful scholarly meeting. But while experts were told explicitly to avoid examination of individual State practices, in reality, human rights are observed or violated in practice. Therefore, a need still exists for follow-up action.

Following are two possible practical steps that could accelerate the reconciliation of universal human rights and cultural diversity.

Firstly, a future seminar could pose specific practical questions on individual articles of the Universal Declaration. For example, what should be done if article 19 of the Declaration, concerning the right to freedom of opinion and expression, is at odds with an Islamic State’s laws? Is article 26, ensuring parents’ right to educate their children according to their will, reconcilable with existing laws in Islamic States? Examining such practical questions can serve to widen the protection of, and respect for, universal human rights.

Secondly, perhaps a future meeting could address ratification of specific human rights treaties. When opening the seminar, the High Commissioner expressed pleasure that 53 of 55 Member States of the OIC had ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Perhaps it would be instructive to discuss the obstacles currently preventing 26 of the 55 Members of the OIC from ratifying the Convention Against Torture, and one third from ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The recent seminar should herald the beginning of concrete steps to ensure human rights for all.

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