Monday, December 01, 2008

1-Dec-08: Terrorism versus Human Rights

Here's the text of a speech delivered to an international conference arranged by MPCT (Mouvement Pour la Paix et Contre le Terrorisme) in Paris, 23-Nov-08. The speaker is one of this blog's authors.

On Terrorism and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Arnold Roth – The Malki Foundation

As our presence here in this place attests, today's subject, Terrorism Versus Human Rights, is surely important enough for us to leave our warm homes and come to this public place and engage in discussion.

The subject has the greatest significance for every person who cares about democracy, humanity and freedom.

For some of us, it is more than simply important. The tension between terrorism on one hand and human rights on the other speaks directly to our personal experience.

For me, the public discussion of this important theme has personal ramifications which compel me to raise my voice. I feel the need to do this even in places where there is little desire for a voice like mine to be heard.

In preparing myself for this conference, I reviewed legal documents, political essays, speeches, declarations, blogs and academic journal articles. From these, it can be seen that, sixty years after its creation, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is under sustained attack and from several quarters.
  1. The secular and universal nature of the Declaration is being undermined and delegitimized. For this we must lay the credit at the feet of the largest club of nations in the world, the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
  2. The UN Human Rights Council, the very organization charged with carrying the Declaration's message into practical application is in fact smothering it. It does this by failing to adhere to the first, and arguably the paramount, principle embodied in the declaration. I shall return to this a little later.
  3. The dark hand of global terrorism, along with the powerful political, ideological and religious forces that sustain it, are endeavoring to strangle it to death. And they are winning.
In my personal life, each of these two trends – (one) the principles of the UDHR and (two) the forces that may bring its life to an end, has played important roles.

I was born in Australia to Jewish parents who arrived as refugees from Germany after being caught up in the extermination which wiped out one-thousand years of Jewish life in Poland, the country of their birth. Surviving the Nazi death camps, my parents began rebuilding their lives in friendly, welcoming Australia at almost exactly the same time as the UDHR was adopted.

Australia was a place which, for all its blessings, had scarcely begun to comprehend the meaning of human rights. In the decade or two after UDHR, the land of my birth abandoned an immigration policy that, while unofficial, was universally known as the "White Australia Policy". I was a high school student when Australian law changed for the first time to include its native population, the Australian Aborigines, in the national census. Their right to vote in elections was granted only in 1948, the same year as the UDHR was born.

The evolution of sensitivity to human rights in Australia took place even while religion and politics remained, for the most part, subjects that were rarely discussed in public. Australian society then and now treats these as matters of personal choice and conscience. The notion that the state or a non-state entity might impose them on a reluctant population was foreign and unacceptable.

The adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations of the UDHR on December 10, 1948 occurred, as I have mentioned, in the shadow of events that dramatically marked world history and also the chronicle of my own family.

Though traditions and religious background are different, and cultural backgrounds and expressions are varied, human nature is universal and the same. The UDHR came to affirm this universal human identity.

I was raised in a system characterized by gentle tolerance, and a respect for the humanity and individuality of the other... though as I have said - not for every other. Fundamental human rights needed to be won. And they were. The laws and sensitivities engendered by UDHR undoubtedly played and play a role in that process.

Beginning in 1981, soon after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran which emerged from the rubble of the empire of the Shah, that country's representatives began a systematic and fundamental attack on UDHR. They did this, and continue to do it, in the United Nations and in many other international forums.

The Iranian ambassador to the UN put his country's agenda on the official record [2] in addressing the General Assembly in 1984.
"The concept of human rights is not limited to the UDHR. Man's divine origin and human dignity cannot be reduced to a series of secular norms. Certain concepts (therefore) contained in the UDHR need to be revised… Iran respects no power or authority but that of A-mighty G-d and no legal tradition other than Islamic law. UDHR represents a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This does not accord with the values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran… Iran therefore would not hesitate to violate its provisions since it has to choose between violating divine law (on one hand) and violating secular conventions (on the other).

This straight-forward analysis leaves little room for doubting where UDHR fits in the hierarchy of values of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and of those who hold to its views.

A little later, the OIC's Conference of Foreign Ministers then gave legal and practical effect to the Iranian rejection of UDHR adopting the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam [3] in August 1990. Two of its articles are of astonishing power and significance:
Article 24: All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to Islamic Shariah.
Article 25: Islamic Shariah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles in this Declaration.
The Cairo Declaration therefore claims supremacy over UDHR based on divine revelation.

Its sponsors, the OIC, succeeded in persuading the leadership of the Human Rights Council that "only religious scholars are allowed to discuss matters of faith." In effect the issue is, by consent, off limits to discussion. This is utterly extraordinary.


Shortly before he was murdered in Baghdad in 2003, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq, put it this way,
"Human rights law has sought to strike a fair balance between legitimate national security concerns and the protection of fundamental freedom. It acknowledges that states must address serious and genuine security concerns such as terrorism."
The notion of human rights norms has been tested and tempered by the surge of terrorist violence in the past decade, and by the ongoing debate in civil societies throughout the world on how to deal with terrorism and with terrorists - with their human rights, and with the human rights of people suspected of taking part.

My wife and I brought our family to the historical Jewish homeland, Israel, in 1988. This was the fulfillment on not only our own dreams but those of our parents and grand-parents.

In Jerusalem, in 2001, our oldest daughter Malki, who was then only 15, was murdered along with many other Israelis in a massacre in the centre of Jerusalem.

A few years later, also in Israel, I met John Dugard – a man whose job title at the time is a sad reflection of the fundamentally flawed way human rights are viewed in certain international circles. He was the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories. Dugard confessed to me, at the end of an hour-long private meeting in my office in Jerusalem, that until that day he had never met a victim of Palestinian Arab terrorism. I have never managed to understand how such an individual can be so influential at the highest levels of international discourse, and at the same time be so poorly informed - and so highly partisan.

Sometimes the unfairness and distortions that characterize the global community's work in human rights produces a change. Such a change happened when the UN's Commission on Human Rights was replaced in 2006 by the Human Rights Council. This came after years of complaints about some of the absurd aspects of the Council's work – too many to recount here. But since its replacement by the HRC, the bad old scenarios repeat themselves:
  • By January 2008, barely two years into its life, HRC had already managed to condemn one country - Israel - eight separate times.
  • About sixty percent of its decisions have been directed at criticizing one country - Israel.
  • The monumental and highly publicized abuses of human rights in such places as Zimbabwe, China, Saudi Arabia have produced zero response.
  • Cuba and Belarus were on a special HRC list of countries under close investigation for human rights infringements. But after a recent vote, their names were removed from that list.
  • Both Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon felt it necessary to point out to the members and leadership of HRC that there are human rights problems in the world in which Israel is not the major player. But they have not succeeded.

The tension between human rights and security in a time of terror seems to be best appreciated in states where terrorism has already made an impact.

Thus in 2005, the British Home Secretary announced tough new measures after the underground trains were blown up by British-born terrorists, acting in the name of their pathological definition of Islam, and said this [5]:
"The human rights of the people who were blown up on the tube on 7th July (2005) are, to be quite frank, more important than the human rights of the people who committed those acts."
His statement brings me to certain insights about this issue which stem from my being the father of a child who was murdered by religious terrorists.

I mentioned earlier the first of the rights honoured and protected by the UDHR - the first, and arguably the paramount, principle embodied in the Declaration: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person" (Article 3).

This is the right to live, the right to stay alive. No right is more important than this one. It is the right that was stolen from my fifteen year-old daughter, and from the many people who loved her.

Prof. Harry Reicher, professor of international law at University of Pennsylvania and Scholar-in-Residence at Touro Law Center in New York is a man personally engaged in human rights-based litigation and other legal actions that respect and defend human rights. He has written this:

"If, in the context of measures aimed at preventing repetitions, strains are placed on individual rights, the unique character of the right to live suggests an a priori rationale for erring on the side of caution. To do so is not, in any sense, to trivialize other human rights. It is rather to underscore the ultimate nature of the right to live… Although it does not formally enunciate a hierarchy of rights, or spell out any mechanism for resolving potential tensions between different rights, the fact that the right to live is the first of the specific rights listed in the document suggests a certain primacy… It is a right that is qualitatively different from all other rights…[6]"

The abuse of this right is a deep wrong, the deepest of all wrongs. Here is why:
  • When a person is imprisoned unjustly, there is a remedy: Release him or her. Restore the right that has been taken away. When a person is deprived of the right to live, then neither this right nor any other can ever be restored.
  • A victim deprived of the right to live can not be compensated. No compensation exists. None can be imagined. But compensation for forms of abuse can be created, and are meaningful.
  • Losing the right to live means the loss of every other right.

Though it is not so fashionable to say so, I believe there is such a thing as the war against terrorism – and it is not going well. Its victims are not only the children blown up in restaurants, and their parents, but also civil society in every country. For this reason, we owe a deep debt of gratitude to Huguette Chomski Magnis and her MPCT colleagues for pushing this on to the agenda of thoughtful people in a constructive and effective way.


[2] Extracted from "Universal Human Rights and Human Rights in Islam" - David Littman – Originally published in Midstream (New York), February/March 1999

[3] Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, Aug. 5, 1990, U.N. GAOR, World Conf. on Hum. Rts., 4th Sess., Agenda Item 5, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.157/PC/62/Add.18 (1993) [English translation]

[5] The Guardian: "Expulsions illegal, UN tells Clarke", 25-Aug-05

[6] "Right to live trumps", Prof. Harry Reicher, The National Law Journal (September 26, 2005)