Islamic Nations Fail to Weaken Women’s Rights Resolution at U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | October 5, 2010 | 5:03am EDT

The Human Rights Council meets at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, in the Palais des Nations. (Photo: UNOG)

( – Islamic states at the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) failed in their attempt to water down a resolution creating a new mechanism to combat discrimination against women, and they are now reserving judgment on how to deal with the initiative.

The resolution establishes a working group of five independent experts who will advise governments on eliminating laws and practices that discriminate against women. It calls on all states “to revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex and remove gender bias in the administration of justice.”

The latter provision poses a direct challenge to Islamic legal systems in which a woman’s testimony in court carries half the weight of a man’s testimony.

In countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, a rape victim is required to present four male witnesses to back her claim, failing which she can herself be charged with adultery.

The HRC resolution was adopted without a vote on the last day of the Council’s three-week session in Geneva on Friday, after OIC states and their allies tried unsuccessfully to insert an amendment that could have provided a loophole to countries wanting to avoid compliance.

The initiative was led by Mexico and Colombia, which built a 70-plus strong coalition of mostly Western and Latin American countries, plus a handful from Africa, both inside and outside the 47-member HRC. Among them were six OIC member states – Albania, Cameroon, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia and Turkey.

The effort to introduce a brief amendment – just 11 words – was led by Saudi Arabian envoy Abdulwahab Attar.

Those 11 words targeted an operative paragraph referring to “the obligation of states to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise.” Attar requested the insertion of the phrase, “in accordance with their international commitments under international human rights law.”

While the suggestion appeared innocuous on the surface, its implication would be far-reaching, because when Saudi Arabia and many other Islamic countries ratified the key U.N. treaty on women’s rights – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – they lodged various reservations or caveats about parts of the treaty, which they view as contradicting shari’a (Islamic law).

“In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention,” Saudi Arabia declared when it ratified the document in 2000.

‘Some concepts are relative’

As other OIC envoys one by one voiced their support at the HRC for the Saudi amendment, Libyan delegate Ibrahim Aldredi explained why the text revision was important for Islamic states.

“Everyone needs to understand that some concepts are relative,” he said. “What might seem to be discriminatory in the eyes of some might not be discriminatory in the eyes of others.

A woman wears the niqab in downtown Marseille, France on Friday, June 19 ,2009. (AP Photo)

“There may be divergences in cultures and religions, and it is these differences and this diversity indeed which makes our world what it is,” Aldredi continued. “No country can have obligations imposed on them without that country being party to that particular instrument. This is something that we all know within the United Nations.”

Others pressing for the amendment included Pakistan, Bahrain and Jordan. Qatar’s envoy said the “legal specificities” of individual states had to be respected. Two of the six OIC states among the resolution’s co-sponsors, Mauritania and Djibouti, withdrew their names as a result of the amendment dispute.

The main sponsors remained adamantly opposed to the Saudi amendment, however, with Mexico’s Juan Jose Gomez Camacho insisting that the subject was “discrimination against women, full stop.”

“We cannot accept this idea of weakening the rights of women using this form of words that has been suggested,” he said.

“The Human Rights Council cannot accept reservations, limitations or caveats which would mean that we are questioning the absolute right that women have not to be discriminated against, be it under the law or in any other fashion.”

When the amendment came up for a vote, it was defeated by 22-18. The resolution itself was subsequently adopted without a vote.

Speaking on behalf of “Saudi Arabia and a number of OIC countries,” Attar then told the HRC that they were committed to eradicate discrimination against women, but would do so “in the framework of our commitments under international human rights law.”

“We will get back to the Council in due time on the manner in which we are going to engage with the new mandate,” he added.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement later welcomed passage of what she called a “historic” resolution.

“Establishing this mechanism by consensus at the U.N. Human Rights Council reinforces once again that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights,” she said.

Women under shari’a

In Saudi Arabia, a rape victim is required to present four uninvolved male Muslim witnesses of good standing to corroborate her version of events, a standard virtually impossible to meet. If she does not do so, she can face charges of adultery.

In 2007, a Saudi court sentenced a young woman who had been gang raped to 90 lashes because at the time the rapists abducted her she happened to have been in a car with a man not related to her.

The woman appealed the verdict but a higher court increased the sentence to 200 lashes and six months’ imprisonment. Amid international criticism the government initially defended the court decision, although King Abdullah eventually “pardoned” her.

A similar situation applies in Pakistan, where in 2002 it was reported that after a young woman accused her brother-in-law of raping her, she was sentenced to death by stoning for extra-marital sex. Following international condemnation, a federal court acquitted her.

In Iran, for a rape victim to secure a conviction against her assailant, she requires the testimony of four men (or three men and two women), and anyone found to have brought false allegations of rape faces 80 lashes, according to the State Department’s latest report on international human rights.

A woman appearing in public without an appropriate head and body covering can be sentenced to lashings and fines, and “women sometimes received disproportionate punishment for crimes such as adultery, including death sentences.”

Provisions in Iranian law dealing with family and property law also discriminate against women, the report said.

Early this year it was reported that a Bangladeshi court was investigating after village elders ordered a 16-year-old girl to be lashed 101 times after she fell pregnant as a result of a rape. The elders pardoned the 20 year-old rapist.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all members of the HRC. Iran sought a seat on the Council this year, but after running into Western opposition it was nominated by the Asian group to a position on the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

Iran got the CSW seat after the U.S. and 12 other Western democracies on the voting body raised no objections.

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