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UN Week – 8/16/2010

August 15, 2010

by John and Douglas Carey, Editors, www.unweek.blogspot.com

Contents of this issue: freedom of religion and the downtown New York City mosque; leprosy and its victims; rape as collateral damage.

Freedom of religion and the downtown New York City mosque.

          As New York City Mayor Bloomberg[1] tilts with opponents of the proposed Islamic Culture Center near Ground Zero, a UN body accused by some of being dominated by Muslim influence has sounded a calming note. On June 18 the UN Human Rights Council adopted without a vote its resolution 14/11 on “Freedom of religion or belief.” Gone are words like “defamation of religion,” so irritating to some participants when accompanied by language calling for restrictions on speech. Instead moderate terms were used to obtain unanimity, including stout defense of free speech.

          The text “1. Condemns all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief, as well as violations of the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

          “3. Condemns any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, whether it involves the use of print, audio-visual or electronic media or any other means;

          “4. Emphasizes that restrictions on the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief are permitted only if limitations are prescribed by law, are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, are non-discriminatory and are applied in a manner that does not vitiate the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; * * * ”

          The UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom or religion or belief is given a daunting task, “to work with mass-media organizations to promote an atmosphere of respect and tolerance for religious and cultural diversity as well as multiculturalism.” It is hard for me to imagine mass media organizations in the US being persuaded by a UN official to adopt a tolerant attitude if they are not inclined already in that direction.

Leprosy and its victims.

          The Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council has issued “revised principles and guidelines for the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members” prepared by Committee member Shigeki Sakamoto, A/HRC/AC/5/2.

          According to The Merck Home Health Handbook (2009 edition) at page 1200, “Because without treatment, people with leprosy are visibly disfigured and often have significant disability, they have long been feared and shunned by others. Although leprosy is not highly contagious, rarely causes death, and can be effectively treated with antibiotics, it still causes anxiety. As a result, people with leprosy and their family members often have psychologic and social problems.”

          It is significant that this UN organ continues to study one of the most dreaded of all diseases, as New Testament stories attest.[2] Among the “principles” Sakamoto urges that “no one should be denied the right to marry on the grounds of leprosy; leprosy should not constitute grounds for divorce; a child should not be separated from his or her parents on the grounds of leprosy. * * *

          “7. Persons affected by leprosy and their family members should not be denied admission to or be expelled from schools or training programmes on the grounds of leprosy. * * *

          “States should remove discriminatory language, including the term ‘leper’ or the equivalent in any language or dialect, from governmental publications  and revise existing publications containing such language as expeditiously as possible. * * *

          “10.2 States should promote equal access to public places, including hotels, restaurants and buses, trains and other forms of public transport for persons affected by leprosy and their family members.”

          Recommended “policies and plans of action may include: * * * (f) To provide information to social leaders, including religious leaders, on how leprosy in their teachings or written materials may contribute to the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by the disease and their family members.”

Rape as collateral damage.

Rape must not be dismissed as collateral damage, or cultural, or inevitable, for it was one of the great peace and security challenges of our time, said Margot Wallström, the Secretary-General’s Special Representa-tive on Sexual Violence in Conflict, at a press conference on August 6th.

Ms. Wallström said her message to the guardians of global public opinion and global peace and security was that there could be no security without women’s security, and that rape was not a lesser evil on the hierarchy of wartime horrors.  To the survivors, it was a soul-shattering crime. “All political and military leaders must recognize that mass rape is no more inevitable or acceptable than mass murder.”  

In modern war, rape was not a side effect, but actually a new fault line, she said. Widespread and systematic sexual violence was both a crime against the victim and a crime against humanity, yet sexual violence was the only crime against humanity that was routinely dismissed as being random or inevitable. Throughout history, rape had been the least condemned and most silenced war crime — with silence playing “straight into the hands of the perpetrators”. 

However, she asserted, the best way to disarm the weapon of rape was to tackle taboos head on.  It was precisely the stigma and shame attached to sexual violence — turning victims into outcasts — that makes it such a powerful tool of family and community destruction.  It was unacceptable that women still have more to lose in terms of ostracism and reprisals than to gain from reporting rape. 

The importance of elevating sexual violence to a place on the peace and security agenda could not be overstated, she said. That brought the issue to a broad and non-traditional constituency — to security stakeholders, peacekeepers, and military and police institutions — and it clarified that it was a security crisis that demanded a security response.  It was not only a women’s issue.

Security Council resolution 1820 (2008) demanded the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians. Yet, there were too many examples of “total war waged on the bodies of women and children and too few prospects for total peace in which women equally participate and benefit”. 

Last month, she noted, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict had launched an inventory of good practice by peacekeepers to prevent and deter conflict-related sexual violence.  It showed that rape could be prevented “if we build the skill and the will”.  For instance, in Darfur, firewood patrols had reduced the number of rapes.  In the Democratic Republic of the Congo — where more than 200,000 women had reportedly been raped in the more than 12 years of conflict — market escorts had enabled women to resume trade. 

Survivors were their own best advocates, she said, adding her desire to compel them, not only to champion their cause, but to create a permanent and global network pressure group.  She also sought to ensure that the United Nations became better attuned to early warning indicators, because crimes on the scale the world had been seeing “are no accidents”; very often, they were strategic, planned, and predictable.  She urged the Security Coun-cil to “use all their tools in their toolbox” to address the problem. 

          An illustration of the problem comes from a Reuters AlertNet of August 12th, which began: “Some are ambushed as they return from washing themselves or in their flimsy tents in the middle of the night, others are confronted by two or three attackers at a time. * * * But the Haitian govern-ment and international aid community are failing to tackle rising incidences of sexual violence in a country where, even before the disaster, sexual abuse was pervasive, rights activists say.”

          That’s all for this August 16th issue of United Nations Week: News and Views. Send along your own views to http://www.unweek.blogspot.com


[1] See article in New York Times, August 13, 2010, page 1, entitled “Bloomberg’s Fierce Defense of Muslim Center Has Deep Roots.” See also his statement quoted in the August 14 Times at A15: “This proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime, and I applaud President Obama’s clarion defense of the freedom of religion tonight.” In the August 15 Times at 4, the President was quoted as saying: “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”

[2]  See Matthew 8: 1-4.

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