Bigger, Better, Shinier Human Rights

Ophelia Benson

Things seemed to be going so well. Last September, Sweden’s Social Democrats won a general election, and they announced that Sweden would become the first European Union member state to recognize Palestine. Pleased and touched, the Arab League invited Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström to be guest of honor at an Arab League meeting in Cairo this March, and she accepted.

But then Saudi Arabia blocked the speech she was planning to give, which was going to touch on women’s rights along with other, less inflammatory subjects. Wallström told reporters in Cairo that Saudi Arabia had “reacted strongly” to her government’s position on democracy and human rights. In response, Sweden canceled a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, and in response to that, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Sweden.

If you read Wallström’s speech, though, you’ll find that it’s not a harsh denunciation of any particular country, or of Islam or Sharia, or of countries that govern in the name of Islam. There’s plenty of diplomatic flattery and invocation of shared values. All she really does is mention women’s rights:

Human rights are a priority in Swedish foreign policy. Freedom of association, assembly, religion and expression are not only fundamental rights and important tools in the creation of vibrant societies. They are indispensable in the fight against extremism and radicalisation. So is a vibrant civil society.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. This is a day to celebrate women’s achievements, recognise challenges, and focus attention on women’s rights, women’s representation and their adequate resources. Our experience is that women’s rights do not only benefit women, but society as a whole.

More than 20 years ago, in 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development met here in Cairo to discuss various issues, including education of women and protection of women from all forms of violence, including female genital mutilation and sexual harassment. Many of these issues are still very much in play today and I urge you to contribute to upholding the agreements made here in Cairo 20 years ago.

That’s all. It doesn’t seem very confrontational or harsh, does it? In fact I would expect Saudi Arabia to go the opposite way and nod pleasantly throughout the speech by way of showing the world that of course it agrees that human rights and women’s rights are important. After all, Saudi Arabia sent a representative to the Charlie Hebdo march for freedom of expression in Paris in January, despite the obvious fact that it doesn’t believe in freedom of expression at all. It could have played the game exactly the same way in March, cynically pretending to agree with Sweden in order to keep the game of diplomatic cooperation and lucrative arms deals going.

On the other hand, in February, before the Arab League meeting, Wallström spoke to the Swedish Parliament about Raif Badawi and said that Saudi Arabia had violated human rights, so perhaps that was the pill too bitter for the Saudis to swallow. Blocking her speech at the Arab League may have been more delayed retaliation for her remarks to Parliament than a rebuke of her speech to the Arab League.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation weighed in on March 14 to explain what was so wrong about all this talk of human rights.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expressed its reservations on the remarks made, in regard to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallström, at the Swedish Parliament last week. In her remarks, Ms. Wallström degraded Saudi Arabia and its social norms, judicial system and political institutions.

The OIC stressed that the world community, with its multiple cultures, diverse social norms, rich and varied ethical standards and different institutional structures, can not, and should not, be based on a single and centric perspective that seeks to remake the world in its own image; and conform all according to its convictions, references, historical background and philosophical, social and political roots.

Yes indeed; let a thousand flowers bloom. Instead of a “single perspective” based on the idea of universal human rights, there should be gloriously rich and varied ethical standards: the Nazi kind, the Falangist kind, the Marxist-Leninist, the Maoist, the North Korea-ist, the apartheid-ist, the Vatican-ist . . . the Mugabe-ist, the Boko Haram-ist, the Islamic State-ist, the Saudi-ist. Some states forbid genocide, others practice it; some countries guarantee equal rights for all, others prefer to deny rights to most of the population. It’s all part of the thrilling creativity and diversity of human life.

Except that there are problems with that arrangement—problems that get worse and worse as military technology gets better and better. The problems thrown up by the Second World War motivated the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is, in a sense, a “single perspective” on how states should treat their populations, one that attempts to rule out colorful variations such as genocide and slavery. The OIC statement on Wallström’s remarks is in tension with that perspective, and with the moral reasoning that underpins it.

But it’s fatuous to argue with the OIC statement as if it were serious. They’re messing with us. They’re having a cynical joke, deploying rhetoric about “rich and varied ethical standards” that they know will sound right-on over here in “the West” but that they don’t believe in for a second. They’re religious absolutists; they don’t have any truck with “diversity” or “varied ethical standards.” It’s just a mocking smoke-screen for what they really mean, which is shut up. They’re happy at the top of their hierarchy looking down on women and foreigners and infidels, and they’re not about to let us shame them into changing the rules.

After all, it’s not as if they voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when it was passed in 1948. Good heavens, no. Saudi Arabia joined South Africa and the Soviet bloc countries in refraining from doing that. To quote Human Rights Watch: “Saudi Arabia’s stated reservations to the Universal Declaration were that its call for freedom of religion violated the precepts of Islam, and that the human rights guaranteed by the Islamic-based law of Saudi Arabia surpassed those secured by the Universal Declaration.” Bigger, better, shinier human rights in Saudi Arabia—what would those be exactly? The right to have no right to drive a car? The right to have no right to leave the house without the permission of a male “guardian”? The right to be sentenced to one thousand lashes, ten years in prison, and a heavy fine for expressing liberal opinions on a website?

It’s a farce. In place of the UDHR, Saudi Arabia has the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 1990 as a substitute for the UDHR. Perhaps it’s under that Declaration’s Article 10 that the Saudis manage to consider the sentence handed down to Raif Badawi to be compatible with human rights: “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.” People can have any religion they want, as long as it’s Islam.

Article 12 clarifies why women have no right to move around without a male guardian: “Every man shall have the right, within the framework of Shari’ah, to free movement and to select his place of residence whether inside or outside his country and if persecuted, is entitled to seek asylum in another country. The cou
ntry of refuge shall ensure his protection until he reaches safety, unless asylum is motivated by an act which Shari’ah regards as a crime.” There, man means “man,” not “human.” The UDHR is careful to avoid the ambiguity of using man to mean “human,” and the Cairo Declaration all too clearly reserves many rights for men only.

Article 22 is poignant: “(a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.” So that’s what the OIC means by “multiple cultures, diverse social norms, rich and varied ethical standards and different institutional structures.” Some countries allow people to change their religion or drop religion altogether; others don’t. Some countries allow men and women to move around freely; others don’t. Some countries allow people to express their opinions freely; others allow that only in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of Sharia—which is to say, not at all.

That’s our beloved ally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Ophelia Benson is the editor of the website Butterflies and Wheels. Her books include Does God Hate Women? (with Jeremy Stangroom, Continuum, 2009).

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).