…or at least, it did.
In the early 1950s, as diplomats in New York sat down to negotiate what would become the two international human rights covenants, Syria’s delegation to the General Assembly’s Third Committee was in the vanguard of efforts to arm the UN’s human rights machinery with stronger implementation mechanisms to ‘pierce the veil of national sovereignty’* that several larger states used as a means of hiding or defending human rights violations. Syrian diplomats, for example, argued that the UN should be able to conduct field investigations to address human rights complaints and ensure compliance with the obligations laid down in the covenants.
Egypt, too, favoured strong measures of implementation, declaring itself ‘ready to accept the establishment of a permanent human rights committee, a court to sanction the committee’s findings, or any other provision that might seem necessary.’ As debate continued over the following sessions, Egypt joined a group of states advocating the right of individuals, groups and non-governmental organisations to petition what was to become the Human Rights Committee – the Treaty Body set up to oversee compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that Israel also shared Syria’s and Egypt’s belief in stronger implementation measures arguing, for example, that ‘unless the right of complaint were also given to non-governmental organisations, implementation would remain a dead letter’).
Syria and Egypt were not alone among Muslim-majority states in their conviction that the UN must be more than a human rights norm-setting machine. Negotiation of the Universal Declaration and the two human rights covenants spanned a full twenty years, and along the way, a number of other countries that would later be part of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) left their mark and made an important contribution to the evolving international human rights system.
Some of the most difficult discussions during this period centred on the right to self-determination and pitched various Muslim-majority states against certain colonial powers. From early in the negotiations, some of these colonial powers had sought provisions to limit their own responsibility for implementing the emergent human rights standards in overseas territories that they controlled. An animated debate in 1947 led Egypt’s delegate to propose wording to establish clearly that human rights should apply equally to the citizens of UN member states and to the peoples in jurisdictions under their control. The language suggested by Egypt was incorporated into the Declaration’s preamble and eventually led to agreements around the principles of universality set forth in article 2 of the Universal Declaration. The colonial powers did not give up easily, however, and when negotiations on the covenants opened in 1950, a number of European states again sought to limit their human rights obligations in colonial possessions. In response, a thirteen state coalition led by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria came together to defeat calls for a ‘colonial clause’ and substitute for it a clear assertion of the right to self-determination. The coalition used stirring rhetoric, procedural devices, and cold logic to fend off objections raised by, inter alia, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Greece, Liberia, Netherlands, Sweden and Turkey. After a series of votes the question was finally resolved (in 1955), and the right of all peoples to self-determination, including the right to freely determine their political status, now appears as the first article of both covenants.
Today, of course, some of the tables have turned. In 2014, countries such as Syria, Israel and Egypt are among the most resistant to UN intervention in the internal affairs of states, and are no longer leading advocates of strong independent implementation mechanisms or NGO involvement.
To contemporary observers of the Human Rights Council and its politics, such historical shifts are as interesting as they are ironic. However, they are also important as a rebuttal to those who claim that the International Bill of Rights and the mechanisms set up to promote compliance with the norms it lays down, are the product of Western post-war hegemony and the related imposition of Western values upon others, including future OIC states.
As this article shows, Muslim-majority states made an important and lasting contribution to the construction of the UN human rights edifice, and today’s human rights system, with the Human Rights Council at its apex, is in many ways the product of the stands they took and arguments they made over half a century ago.
It was well understood then, even if some choose to question it today, that the obligations and principles contained in the Declaration and the two covenants were intended to be universal standards. As Pakistan’s delegate noted during a Third Committee debate in 1948, it is ‘imperative that the people of the world should recognise the existence of a code of civilised behaviour [that is applied] not only in international relations, but also in domestic affairs’.
*Thomas Buergenthal, remarks at 87th annual meeting of the American Society of International Law (2nd April 1993).
Professor, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan (USA) and co-author of the website Human Rights Advocacy and the History of International Human Rights Standards
Image (UN Photo, reproduced with permission): In the delegates’ lounge at U.N. Paris Headquarters are, from left to right: Dr. Rachad Pharaon, Head of Saudi Arabia’s delegation, Faris El-Khoury Bey, Head of Syria’s delegation, Mr. Sayed Hassan Ibrahim, Head of Yemen’s delegation and Mr. Hafiz Wahba of Saudi Arabia. January 1952. UN Photo.
Note: UN photos must be used in strict accordance with UN Photo Usage Guidelines http://www.unmultimedia.org/photo/guidelines.html
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