Major Muslim group sets up human rights division

Chief of Organization of the Islamic Conference hopes committee will bring about "paradigm shift."

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has announced it is setting up a special division that will deal with human rights.
Following a Tuesday meeting with the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said the organization was on the verge of creating a permanent and independent committee for human rights.
Ihsanoglu said he hoped that the committee’s creation would bring about a “paradigm shift” in the OIC.
According to the OIC chief, the steps required to set up the commission are being finalized, and it will likely begin its work following the upcoming session of the council of foreign ministers in Tajikistan next month.
The OIC spans 57 countries over four continents, making it the second-largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations. It was established in 1969 and aims to be the “collective voice of the Muslim world.”
However, Mona Abousenna, secretary general of the Averroes and Enlightenment International Association, said the committee would only be effective if it avoided religious influences.
“Setting up a human rights committee at the Organization of the Islamic Conference could be a positive move in one case only, and that is if this committee does not derive its principles of human rights from Sharia [Islamic Law] and other divine sources, but from human principles and ideals,” she told The Media Line.
Her comments reflect a belief among some Islamic critics that Islamic tenets do not fall in line with principles of human rights.
“Having stated what it is against, it has also to announce what it is for,” she said of Islam, “namely, freedom of expression and acceptance of difference of opinions and, above all, a mind-set that is not absolutist and accepts a secular method of thinking – by which I mean thinking about relative issues in a relative, and not in an absolute way. It must accept all religions of the world as equal to Islam and respect their followers as much as it should embrace nonbelievers and skeptics.”
But during his meeting with Pillay, Ihsanoglu argued that universal human rights were in harmony with Islamic values, and said he hoped the new commission would offer a coherent strategy aimed at “facilitating the full enjoyment of all human rights in the OIC member states.”
Bat Ye’or, a British scholar and specialist on the history of non-Muslims in the Middle East, said the OIC’s charter included the propagation, promotion and preservation of Islamic teachings and values based on moderation and tolerance.
“It is clear to me that the OIC needs to improve the image of human rights in Muslim countries, although these are not uniform,” she told The Media Line. “It also needs to establish a general framework for its member countries. However, these human rights will be rooted in the Quran, the Sunna and the Shari’a. They will not be similar to the Universal Declaration, which is secular. They will be rooted in the religion, in Islam.”
Pillay began a 10-day visit to six Gulf countries on Monday in an effort to improve cooperation between the UN human rights system and the GCC states: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Pillay said the GCC showed an “encouraging level of governmental activity to improve human rights,” particularly in the areas of economic and social rights, children’s rights and human trafficking.
But she also noted continuing concerns about women’s rights, migration, statelessness, and freedom of expression, association and assembly.
In a speech delivered at the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Jeddah on Monday, Pillay said she was pleased to note the “active and constructive engagement” of GCC states and civil society organizations in the new Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, under which all 192 UN Member States have their human rights record assessed once every four years by the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have already been through the process; the review of Kuwait will take place next month, followed by Oman in 2011.
“Some member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have modified their laws with respect to women’s rights, including marriage, divorce and public participation,” Pillay said. “This approach was due to dynamic interpretations of Islamic traditions on the part of governments and jurists who, I am informed, demonstrated that far from being innovations, such legislation was compatible with Islamic jurisprudence and, indeed, stemmed from it.”
Despite some steps forward, such as allowing women to vote and have access to public office in some GCC countries, Pillay pointed out that women were still not able to fully enjoy their human rights across the region.
“Discriminatory barriers continue to hamper women’s right to shape their own lives and choices, and fully participate in public life,” she said. “These barriers must be removed.”
Pillay also expressed concern over the treatment of migrant workers in Gulf states, following ongoing reports of confiscation of passports, withholding of wages and exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers.
Other issues she addressed included stateless people in GCC countries,the need for a vibrant press and a committed civil society, theimportance of the rights to freedom of association, assembly andexpression, and the importance of national human rights institutionsthat work independently of government to protect and promote humanrights on the national level.
Pillay pointed to the “growing effectiveness” of these organizations inQatar and Saudi Arabia, which were the Gulf’s first national humanrights institutions. She called on the remaining countries to followsuit.