Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Women's Rights as Universal Human Rights

We charmed our way into the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. When I think of what we did to get in... never mind that, but how could we resist? Saudi Arabia was up for a periodic review! They gave us official passes and everything ... That's right, so hot right now. I was half expecting to witness a massacre. If you live in the 21st century, you'd understand why, but if you need me to clarify, here's just one fact that I picked up at the Yale University library one evening: In 2000, Amnesty International launched the first ever campaign against an individual country by an international human rights organization. That country was, you guessed it, our one and only beloved KSA.

In short, states are given recommendations on a report they should have submitted months earlier and it is up to the country to accept, reject, and/or take these recommendations into consideration for further examination. At this, the 11th Session of the Human Rights Council, the country under review is given 20 minutes to make a statement, after which other states voice their opinions, followed by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). The report is then, presumably, adopted by the Council.

Don't believe what the marketing gurus tell you: you don't need popcorn and Coca-Cola to enjoy every feature entertainment. It wasn't all fun and I did, to my horror, fall asleep waiting for our turn to come (not enough sleep- read my previous post). But when the screen signaled that we were next, my ears perked up. The gentleman who stood on behalf of Saudi Arabia (head of the National Human Rights Commission) was extremely well-spoken and poised, in that way that makes you love the Arabic language even more. He highlighted King Abdullah's interfaith efforts and his program for rehabilitating terrorists, as well as recent amendments in the judicial system and progress on women's issues, domestic violence, and the establishment of a department to protect foreigners. I was moved, but still reluctant about the World's reaction, given.. you know...

When he was done, the names of 34 states came up on the screen, but protocol dictates that only the first 10 are given 2 minutes each: Pakistan, Venezuela, Qatar, Algeria, Cuba, Belarus, Bahrain, China, Egypt, and the UAE. What came next was, from my point of view, pure comedy. It doesn't take a genius to guess that one after the other each state spoke in praise; just take a second look at the list of countries who were speaking.

Cuba spoke of KSA's generosity towards developing countries, while China expressed its support of Saudi Arabia's "very responsible attitude and careful study of recommendations. No country is perfect but we are convinced that Saudi Arabia will take all necessary measures." Then Egypt spoke in its usual exaggerated language "Masha'Allah La Quwwata illa billah... 7aga 3azeema" (Praise be to God the Powerful, this is a magnificent thing). Finally the UAE representative concluded that "my delegation expresses its support."

Next up: NGO's. Amnesty International made the cut and with it, an abbreviated version of the massacre I was expecting.

In 2 minutes, Amnesty squeezed in every issue under the sun: the death penalty and the beheading of children, foreign nationals, and terrorists; fair and transparent elections; forced disappearances; the "abolishment of male guardianship as a matter of priority"; and reforming the basic law to incorporate gender equality. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights also spoke up about women and migrant workers and religious freedom and the freedom of association and public flogging. But there were also some random ones like the Indian Council of South America and the National Association of Cuban Economists. Huh? (They were supportive, in case you were wondering.)

I learned one important lesson that day and it actually has roots in our Islamic tradition: "Innama al-a3mal binniyyat" (actions are judged by the intentions behind them). All states, with no exception, shelter dreadful human rights violations, some worse than others. The real question is about political will and participating in the process of reform. If you can demonstrate that, you're golden.

And, of course having friends helps.

The report was adopted. Hurray!

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IT began as a field diary for my summer in Jizan (2006) under the title "Watch Out Bubba Gump." Now I'm not sure what it is... but I do know it's time for me to start writing again.