Essay: UNiversal – The UN, OIC and LGBT Rights

In this essay the author, William Clowes, addresses the contradictions of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation when dealing with human rights. The OIC claim to be guardians, universalists and victims simultaneously to support their own traditions in the face of universal rights. This double standard is at its most obvious when dealing with the issue of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“When efforts are made to condemn a particular group to secondary status, nobody – not the OIC nor the Vatican – should remain unchallenged as they sing the hymns of universality and feign opposing oppression whilst they studiously gnaw away at those very principles and ignore (or excuse) the persecution carried out in the name of what they defend.”


By William Clowes, 20th March, 2012

Earlier this month the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held its first ever session to specifically address the discrimination faced in many parts of the world by people on account of their ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ – in effect, the LGBT community. The gathering in Geneva followed a resolution passed very narrowly by the Council last June which condemned this kind of discrimination. The resolution, strongly pushed by the USA and South Africa, also tasked Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with producing the UNHRC’s first report into the global extent of this persecution and committed the Council to hold this month’s session.

Despite this apparent progress, a sizeable block of countries either from Africa or members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) absented themselves from the discussion and have refused to consider its recommendation. There has been much press in recent yearsdedicated to the deadly homophobia prevalent in much of sub-Saharan Africa – ironically (given the US’s role in backing the resolution) often funded by the dollars of US Christian groups – but the recalcitrance of the OIC should be unsurprising. This is not simply because all the OIC nations currently part of the UNHRC were amongst the 19 countries that voted against last June’s resolution but it is also symptomatic of their previous form at the UN.

The 57-member OIC, headquartered in Saudi Arabia and comprised of nations with large Muslim populations, has expended significant efforts through its UN delegation during this century trying to persuade the UNHRC and General Assembly to pass illiberal resolutions that would commit member states to combating the ‘defamation of religion’. Up until last year this affront to free speech was repelled by western nations and, in particular, the USA. In 2011 – once the OIC had agreed to omit the offending ‘defamation’ clause – both the UNHRC and General Assembly passed a resolution pithily titled, ‘Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatisation, discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on religion and belief’.

The title and content of the resolution seem laudable enough, but as UN Watch, the NGO which exists ‘to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own charter’, stated ‘the problem is not with the document per se, but with its sponsor’. The publications and rhetoric of the OIC tend to focus its disapproval solely on anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim happenings in the USA and Europe. They do not acknowledge the black irony that they target the very nations which are most likely to afford citizens the necessary legal protections to fight ‘incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on faith’ and entirely overlook the manifold failures in their own states to protect the rights of religious minorities to practice their chosen religions. It is apparent from the manner in which the OIC went about sponsoring and lobbying the resolution at the UN that the conservative and autocratic leaderships of the group’s member states are far more interested in keeping their versions of state-sanctioned religion uncontested than protecting the individual’s right to practice their religion. As I have written previously, OIC member states generally have a lamentable record at protecting the most basic (supposedly universal) freedoms within their jurisdictions.

On this occasion too, although the circumstances of the situation differ, it is the character of the OIC that is the critical issue. The most conspicuous reason why the OIC members of the UNHRC should object to the recent Council session provides an illuminating parallel with their failings over last year’s resolution on religious freedom. Just as, according to the charity Open Doors, 38 of the top 50 countries where Christians face the ‘most severe’ persecution are OIC members, 39 of the 77 states that criminalise homosexuality and all seven that impose the death penalty are part of the OIC. That data, provided by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, merely surveys laws which criminalise same-sex relationships between consenting adults and does not even begin to assess other forms of stigmatisation and discrimination.

It might seem peculiar to be drawing parallels between an occasion on which the OIC sponsored a resolution it had no intention of honouring and an occasion on which it refused to sign up to a resolution it had no intention of honouring – but therein lies the consistency. In both incidences, the OIC has given religious and cultural justifications precedence over the universal rights they are (as UN members) bound to respect.  Both times they have also used the language of victimhood and rights to deflect scrutiny away from their own deficiencies.

Whereas last year the OIC’s devalued argument was manifest through sponsoring a resolution against a form of bigotry most prevalent amongst its own members, this year they have excused their reluctance to combat another ubiquitous kind of prejudice by accusing the UN itself of discrimination. In a letter sent to the UN by Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN, in his role ‘as coordinator of the OIC Group on Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues in Geneva’, he sets out the group’s objections to the resolution and the subsequent session. The OIC, Akram asserts, are ‘deeply concerned at the attempt to introduce in the UN concepts that have no legal foundation in any international human rights instrument’. In the course of the letter he manages to play an array of roles: the guardian of human rights (since the resolution ‘seriously jeopardise[s] the entire international human rights framework’), the universalist (because he is ‘disturbed’ by the ‘attempt to focus on certain persons on the grounds of their abnormal sexual behaviour’) and the victim of oppression (for ‘cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind’ by the UN).

A logical assumption is that OIC states – as members of the UN and often part of the rotating membership of the UNHRC – at least intend to pay lip service to the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Therefore, in order to adopt the letter’s stance, they have to argue that LGBT people are somehow excluded from the Declaration or that this resolution seeks to give them a privileged position.

Indeed, there is no reference to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the UDHR, but there are articles, for example, that prohibit torture and degrading treatment (Art. 5), arbitrary arrest (Art. 9) and the denial of the right to free assembly (Art. 20). OIC members and other states regularly deny these rights to people for reasons other than sexual orientation, but – given the OIC’s letter purports to be concerned about human rights and their universality – they should be able to better articulate why LGBT peoples are excluded from the declaration’s principle of universality without instinctive recourse to convenient cultural and religious justifications.

The OIC are not the only interest group to have attempted to present the resolution as ameans to offer LGBT peoples an exalted, privileged position rather than as an effort to level the playing field for a harried group. The Pope’s Permanent Observer to the UN even told the UNHRC that the Council was pressuring member states to support gay marriage, even though one could be forgiven for thinking that the right not to be executed would more of a priority for an Iranian or Mauritanian homosexual. This conspiratorial leap from an expression of ‘grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination’ against LGBT peoples to advocacy for same-sex marriage was accompanied by an assertion that the Catholic Church opposes attempts to ‘particularize or to develop special rights for special groups [which] could easily put at risk the universality of those rights’. Rick Perry, the erstwhile Republican candidate, was more candid than the slickly worded objections of the OIC and Vatican. He responded to Hilary Clinton’s speech last December arguing that ‘gay rights’ were human rights by declaring that ‘investing tax dollars to promote a lifestyle many Americans of faith find so deeply objectionable is wrong’. Integral to all these protestations is the idea that homosexuality is not natural (indeed Akram’s letter opposed the resolution’s ‘focus on certain persons on the grounds of their abnormal sexual behaviour’) and no number of appeals to universal rights will weaken this localised conviction. This creates an obvious problem at the UN – and one patently not confined to only the OIC and Catholic Church – when Navi Pillay says that ‘the balance between tradition and culture, on the one hand, and universal human rights, on the other, must be struck in the favour of rights’.

In what can be interpreted as an acknowledgment of the weakness of the OIC’s argument Akram’s letter claims to find it ‘disturbing’ that the UNHRC would focus on LGBT peoples and not ‘the glaring instances of intolerance and discrimination in various parts of the world, be it on the basis of colour, race, gender or religion’. This ‘whataboutery’ seems to be in keeping with previous efforts to divert attention from issues they find uncomfortable, but is easily rebuked. Firstly, there is no reason why focusing on one form of discrimination should avert attention from others and, secondly, discrimination ‘on the basis of colour, race, gender or religion’ is widespread in OIC states and they show little interest in combating that. Clearly it is important to recognise that in countries outside sub-Saharan Africa and the OIC there exists a great deal of discrimination against LGBT peoples, but one must also avoid the pernicious slippage into indifferent relativism. For example, a country where homophobic attitudes are too common and that is undecided about legalising gay marriage, but yet counts ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ amongst legally protected characteristics, is not the same as a country that criminalises homosexuality or has endemic discrimination against LGBT peoples in the work place or education system.

The UN is by no means the acme of progressive democracy and is often unconcerned with self-determination. There are cogent arguments against the NGO activism and supranational organisations, which the UN typifies, but those usually take a position in favour of more localised, sovereign democracy. A cursory glance at the membership of the OIC immediately reveals that more democracy is not a priority for many of the regimes currently in power. It would also be a point of inconsistency if the OIC were to object to the overbearing nature of external prescriptions when they are quite content to use the institutions of the UN to further causes close to their heart, such as last year’s farcical resolutions on religious freedom. The inevitable response from some ‘anti-imperial’ quarters that this resolution is just another example of cultural imperialism by the west is also easily countered, given that the country that introduced the resolutionand was the first in the world to provide constitutional protection to LGBT people is post-apartheid South Africa. Furthermore, there is the fact that all Latin American nations voted for last year’s resolution on LGBT discrimination and that a number of the laws defended by African and Islamic countries that criminalise homosexuality are relics from the colonial rule (although plenty are also based on Islamic justifications).

There is a final point of correspondence regarding the role of the OIC between the resolutions on religious freedom and LGBT discrimination. This is their stated intentions beyond the resolutions themselves. Despite removing the clause that would have committed UN member states to stopping their citizens ‘defaming’ religions, the OIC’s ‘Ten-Year Programme of Action’ from 2005 emphasises ‘the responsibility of the international community, including all governments, to ensure respect for all religions and combat their defamation’ and, during the 2010 meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, they adopted a strategy ‘to broaden support for its Resolution on “Combating Defamation of religions”’. Likewise, in spite of the alleged concern for the universality of human rights and that the leaderships of OIC nations are not monolithic; the organisation adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam in 1990. Supporters of this document claim it ‘complement[s] the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights]’ whilst it stresses inter alia that ‘Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah’. Given the interpretation of Islamic law in many OIC member states, this qualification unequivocally compromises the notion of universality for non-Muslims and the ‘wrong kind’ of Muslims and serves to particularise human rights under an Islamic, not a universal, overview.

This recent standoff has served to highlight an obstacle that is very difficult to surmount. A refusal to see same-sex preferences as something universal to all humanity, as something that does not threaten to tear asunder the very fabric of society is sadly too commonplace throughout the world. But this admission is not to say that some parts of the world are not moving in a much more positive direction than others or to conceal that there are monarchs, clerics, dictators and governments that seek to distinguish themselves by malignly endorsing such harassment as a form of cultural protectionism against external intolerance. There will always be a fractious relationship between those who support a basic level of fundamental human rights that is truly universal, trumping localised counter-attacks, and those who are unyielding in their commitment to the supremacy of their own cultural and religious justifications. In spite of this, it is worth remembering the Vienna Declaration, which the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus in 1993, when it states that ‘While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms’.When efforts are made to condemn a particular group to secondary status, nobody – not the OIC nor the Vatican – should remain unchallenged as they sing the hymns of universality and feign opposing oppression whilst they studiously gnaw away at those very principles and ignore (or excuse) the persecution carried out in the name of what they defend.

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