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Respect Universality in Principle and Practice: Defend Women's Human Rights

Posted on: Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Keywords: Human Rights Advocacy, Women Human Rights Defenders

A statement from the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition.

As women human rights defenders and members of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC), we note with grave concern the circumstances under which Gita Sahgal, a member of the WHRD IC Executive Committee and head of the Gender Unit of the International Secretariat of Amnesty International (AI), was suspended on the same day that she publicly questioned the specific alliances entered into by AI in its advocacy to defend victims of torture in Guantanamo Bay.  

We would like to use this occasion to discuss the defence of the rights of all to be free from human rights abuse including torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and at the same time ensure adherence to the universality of human rights, particular the defence of women’s human rights.  Others have raised similar concerns and this issue was recently discussed in a working group on  direct accountability of religious fundamentalist political forces convened during the Strategic Conversation:  Addressing Gaps in the Defence of Women Human Rights Defenders organised by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) in collaboration with the WHRD IC last 27 – 30 June 2009.

In the present context of ‘constructive engagement’ with the Taliban, AI bears the burden of closely scrutinising that its partners do not use its platform  to condone fundamentalist groups that are accountable for gross violations of women’s human rights, the rights of minorities and indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population in Afghanistan.  Amidst the growing tendency of privileging religion and culture at the expense of women’s human rights, we must be vigilant not to undermine the extensive work we have done in exposing religious fundamentalisms and draw attention to the lack of mechanisms for accountability of non-state actors such as powerful fundamentalist forces, which have further empowered religious extremists groups such as the Taliban.

The language of human rights defenders introduced in the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders clearly stipulates that defenders of human rights must espouse the principles of universality of human rights and non-violence.  It also invokes that “everyone who, as a result of his or her profession can affect the human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms of others should respect those rights and freedoms and comply with relevant national and international standards”. (Article 11)  Individuals also have an important role and a responsibility in contributing to the promotion of the right of everyone to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Defenders and other human rights instruments can be fully realized. (Article 18)

Considering the credibility of AI as an international human rights organization, its positioning bestows political legitimacy on those it gives its platform to speak. As such, we call upon AI to review the criteria by which it provides such a platform and to publicly affirm its commitment to refrain from giving legitimacy to individuals and organisations that espouse political beliefs and actions that undermine and negate the universal principles of non-discrimination and respect for gender equality. AI has to help clarify the distinction between defending the right of all people to be free from all forms of human rights abuse including freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest and detention, , and providing them with legitimacy by inviting them to share public platforms with us.

We have worked with AI as one of the members of the WHRD IC on several occasions to raise concerns of human rights defenders and have supported its campaigns, particularly on Stop Violence against Women.  We join AI in its commitment to the universality of human rights.  So given the complexity of this issue, what is needed is an open debate, not a censoring or closure of discussion on this important concern. It is an opportunity for AI to engage with the Coalition and other stakeholders to confront the critical issues raised above and in the process be transparent and disclose its procedures and criteria for giving someone as controversial as Moazzam Begg a political platform.

Endorsed by the following members of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition:  

Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)
Baobab for Women’s Human Rights
Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL)
Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF)
Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)




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