Report on the OSCE Supplementary Human Rights Dimension Meeting

EuropeNews 10 November 2009

Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Gender Equality, Vienna, 5-6 November 2009

As I prepared for the OSCE meeting, I was fully aware that we would encounter strong opposition from most participants. However, the amount that we as a group were able to achieve took me by surprise — it was so much more than we would ever have thought possible.

That we were not applauded is obvious. Yet there were many in the room who covertly (or sometimes even overtly) agreed with us. We opened doors, doors that were previously shut and bolted. No one ever put the topic of Islam on the table, most likely out of fear and for the sake of political correctness. The OSCE is, after all, closely associated with the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and the Council of Europe. The former is responsible for some very restrictive laws that stifle freedom of opinion within the EU.

The events at the meeting can best be described by using the format of a drama in several acts.


Introduction:

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), based in Warsaw, organizes three annual supplementary human dimension meetings. (For an explanation of the term “human dimension”, consult my earlier reports about the OSCE, which include a historical overview.) These meetings always take place in Vienna, whereas the annual conference is held in Warsaw.

The third and last meeting this year focused on the topic of gender equality, with a special focus on combating violence against women. A worthy topic, about which there is much to be said from our perspective.

The characters in this drama are numerous: First, the officials from ODIHR. They were in charge of accepting the submission of official papers with interventions and recommendations. We will return to them later.

Second, the moderators of the Civil Society Round Table and the Sessions, as well as the introducers who set the stage for each session by providing examples of good practices.

Third, the representatives of the participating States and associated States as well as international organizations.

And fourth, we, the representatives of the various more or less non-governmental organizations. It is worth mentioning that the OSCE is the only international organization where the representatives of civil society can discuss their issues on equal terms with participating States.



Act I – Rising action

November 5, 2009

The first event of the first day concerned civil society. The ODIHR organized a Civil Society Roundtable in order “to present the purpose and scope of the meeting; to discuss in more detail the role and contributions that civil society can make to the event; to give civil society representatives the opportunity to network and better coordinate their interventions and recommendations.”

The roundtable included a thorough presentation of the purpose, protocol and good practices of round tables and the contributions that NGOs can make, as well as participant introduction. The CSO (civil society) representatives then met in “three groups divided along the key themes of the meeting (Protection of Victims of Gender-based Violence; Investigation and Prosecution of Perpetrators of Violence against Women; and Prevention of Violence against Women) to discuss and share thoughts on their potential contributions.” I acted as rapporteur for the meeting on prevention of violence against women and was thus able to steer the talk in the right direction.

The three dominant topics of the discussion were education, family, and Islam. The key to raise awareness of violence against women is to start young, i.e. in schools. In addition, healthy families are able to teach children from childhood about how parents treat each other.

We added that Christian values are reflected in our secular laws, while violence stems from some religious groups. Mission Europa added that secular laws must be reflected in religious practices. A representative of a Kyrgyz NGO weighed in, saying that religion has the potential to be a positive force and that no religion promotes violence. There are, according to the Kyrgyz, some religions that show a large division between men and women.

A recommendation to the OSCE was put forward: There needs to be clear wording in laws. Religion must never be an excuse for violence.

The Kyrgyz representative told the group about the difficulties they face when trying to connect with religious leaders. Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Muslim country, where the main problem lies with the religious leaders, whose cooperation is urgently needed. Since 2008, religious leaders have been issuing marriage certificates which are not accepted by the secular government. The representative added also that civil marriage grants equal rights to both the husband and the wife, while the religious marriage does not. Rather, it focuses on and empowers men, as only men can declare divorce. The Kyrgyz representative's recommendation to the OSCE: Civil law must supersede religious law.

The discussion was helpful for our cause because we were able to table the word Islam for the first time. Up until then, we had always shied away from using the I-word. It was always about “certain religious groups”. Mission Europa boldly asked the Kyrgyz representative what religion we were talking about, and – boom! - there it was. The I-word!

At the end of the civil society roundtable the three rapporteurs delivered their statements summing up the discussion. A delegate of a Bosnian NGO, Sabiha Husi?, as well as a delegate from Kyrgyzstan took the floor and said: “We are against Islam being seen as the main source for violence, as Islam cherished human values.” CARE Austria weighed in that we should not mix the perpetrator's background with the act of violence itself. In their experience with migrants there is no religious background in violence.



Act 2 – Conflict

For Session I we introduced two papers.

The supplementary meeting was officially in session with the start of Session I focusing on the protection and assistance for victims of violence against women. The keynote address was delivered by Cheryl A. Thomas, Women’s Programme Director, Advocates for Human Rights, United States of America. Her speech was a long one, but mercifully contained points I was able to allude to during my first intervention:

    Thank you for your very interesting speech. You mentioned the gap in procedures that a husband to kill his wife.

    There is a similar case currently baffling authorities in the United States. Rifqa Bary, a convert from Islam to Christianity, had a long history of enduring systematic violence by her father, which is accepted as shariah-compliant. She managed to escape to Florida to live with foster parents. She was then ordered by the court to be returned to her violent parents. (I mentioned also that she is in child protection right now). If we are to protect women from this kind of violence, courts need to understand the threat emanating from religious laws, in particular the use of capital punishment for apostasy.

There was no reaction to my statement, but no need either.

Mission Europa took the floor with the following two recommendations to the Austrian government:

    Mission Europe calls on the Austrian Government to take the necessary measures that Austrian laws prevail above religious principles. Contradictions to these laws reflected in Islam must not be allowed as foreseen in the respective laws.

    Mission Europe calls on the Austrian Government to establish the conditions for economic security in order to make gender equality a reality.

Thus ended Day 1. The stage was set.

November 6, 2009

Again, we introduced a paper in advance.

The introducer for Session II, which focused on the prosecution of perpetrators of violence against women, was Sonia Chirinos, Judge, General Council of the Judiciary, Spain. She spoke of her experiences in the judiciary, especially the problems regarding battered migrant women who withdraw their complaints against their abusive husbands.

These words provided an opportunity for Astrid Meyer-Schubert, representing the Wiener Akademikerbund, to present her intervention:

    Regarding the basic questions of western civilization and its rule of law with special focus on the view of gender in religious communities, we recommend that participating States look into the practices of religious communities and whether their views of human rights and gender equality are constitutional.
    For instance:

    a)What views of women’s rights is Female Genital Mutilation based on?

    b)What does the religious ruling on headscarves tell us about men and their views?

    c)What is the definition of female gender if it is not considered a legal person or its testimony in court counts only as half of that of a man?

    These fundamental questions need to be asked. In order to successfully integrate religious communities into western civilization a very basic discussion on gender matters needs to take place.

    In addition, religious communities should be required to indicate to what extent their image of women fits in with western civilization.

The judge replied: Her experience with religious communities as well as Roma and Sinti groups shows that Muslim women either withdraw their complaints or do not even bring their plight to the attention of the authorities.

Wiener Akademikerbund had yet another question in this regard:

    If the state – in capacity of you as a judge for gender-specific violence - already intrudes into the family, like you have just described, it seems to me that the state should also concentrate on Roma and Sinti as well as the Muslim religious group. Women from those religious groups can only be helped if these religious groups are willing to cooperate with the state. The state should put more legal pressure on these patriarchally-oriented religious groups.

The representative of Morocco replied:

    We should generalize these matters and we vigorously condemn this statement equating violence with Islamic religion.



Act 3 – Climax

The last session focused on prevention of violence against women. Mr. Vladimir Korotenko, NGO Social Technologies Agency, Kyrgyzstan, was the introducer of this session, reporting on good practices from his country and thereby unwittingly providing the perfect argument for me to take the floor. I was one of the first speakers on this topic and my intervention was explosive:

    Thank you for a very powerful presentation. You mentioned the strain of migration in your report. Here in Europe we also face a huge influx of migrants, including many of the Muslim faith.

    One issue that has been left out until now, it seems to me, is violence against women that is backed by principles of the Muslim faith. I do not have to tell you about the honor killings in Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, among other countries; as well as forced marriages, in addition to the Koranic verse 4:34, which says – and I quote -:

    You have rights over your wives and they have rights over you. You have the right that they should not defile your bed and that they should not behave with open unseemliness. If they do, God allows you to put them in separate rooms and to beat them but not with severity. If they refrain from these things, they have the right to their food and clothing with kindness. Lay injunctions on women kindly, for they are prisoners with you having no control of their own persons. (Guillaume's translation, p. 651) (Ibn Ishaq)

    Why are not discussing this issue here and at other occasions in a depth that does justice to this problem?

    I therefore recommend that ODIHR urgently start a working group on violence against women in Islam in order to find out how to best approach this in the context of the OSCE human dimension.

It was out on the table. Let's deal with the problem right here, right now. No more pussy-footing.

Mission Europa upped the ante by adding this:

    I would like to refer to the statement I made yesterday in order to clarify that fundamental human rights must be the supreme norm for a peaceful coexistence both in the public and the private sphere. In this regard, the participating States must ensure that contradictory Islamic norms are not acceptable, which would then result in peaceful coexistence.

There were very few pleased faces in the plenary, though I did notice the introducer nodding a few times during my intervention. The Azerbaijani parliamentary delegate next to me was fuming, seething, about to explode.

Mr. Korotenko, the introducer, replied that I addressed an important area and supported the idea of setting up a working group. However, he added that marriage has noting to do with religion, but rather whose rights are being infringed when there is religious marriage only.

The German OSCE representative pointed to the universality of human rights. She was unhappy about this discussion as this venue is not the right place to discuss religion.

The moderator, Ms. Jamila Seftaoui, Senior Advisor on Gender Issues, OSCE Secretariat, snubbed my statement: “I am unhappy with the interventions as the monocausality [of blaming Islam for violence against women] does not do justice to the problem.”

Since we were realistic about our chances of replying to this, we drafted the following response for the OSCE's official records:

    By mentioning religion as being a source of violence against women, we did not mean to single out Islam as being a monocausality for violence against women. However, we see Islam as one of the causes of violence against women, which has to be investigated in line with fundamental human rights and in accordance with the respective convention of the Council of Europe.

    In this line, Mission Europa supports the recommendation by Pax Europa for the institution of a working group investigating violence against women in Islam.

    Mission Europa wants to clarify that none of the NGOs as indicated by COJEP ever asked for an oath to be sworn by Muslims not to be terrorists.

Later on, Mrs. Basibuyuk Zeyneb, representing COJEP, weighed in:

    I would like to make two points. I deplore the hate speech against Islam which should not take place and which is not surprising since this so-called NGO in July proposed that Muslims sign the Charter of Muslim Understanding, asking us to to distance ourselves from certain suras of the Quran and accusing Muslims of being terrorists.

    The second point: I am being victimized because I wear a headscarf. [The] Headscarf ban in some participant [sic] States is a form of Islamophobia and is felt as violence against Muslim women by most of them. Forbidding women to exercise their basic rights or barring entrance to public places unless they take off their headscarves is clearly a form of violence. [...]

    Discrimination against women wearing headscarf decreases their ability to become a part of society, hinders their personal development, prevents them from advancing their cultural knowledge, restricts them from obtaining financial independence, and puts a major obstacle in the way of their empowerment and advancement. [...]

Session III finished after more interventions which no longer concerned us. A staring contest between the COJEP representative and myself made the rest of the session more interesting. The lady was not pleased and left immediately following the closing of session III.

I was stopped during the short break between session III and the closing session by Ms. Anna-Lena Svensson-McCarthy who represented the World Organization Against Torture. Ms. Svensson-McCarthy was visibly upset: “I just have to tell you how offended I was by your words attacking the Muslims. I am a Christian and we should not forget about the many children who are abused by the priests.” I told her that I am offended by the Islamic teachings every day. In any case, priests abusing children do not find the command to do so in the Bible, but abuse them despite the teachings of the Bible. Muslim perpetrators commit violence because they are commanded to do so by their religious teachings. We continued our discussion for a while, particularly about the 84 shariah courts in the UK, and at the end she told me, “I can see where you're coming from.” I can only hope she took something with her from our talk.



Final scene: Conclusion

The closing session included reports from the working session moderators as well as comments from the floor.

While the moderators from the first and second sessions included some of our remarks and interventions in their report, Ms. Jamila Seftaoui, the moderator of session III, painfully ignored the discussion about the religious aspect of violence against women. One would have thought it never took place. What do I make of that? Simple: The OSCE is also heavily infused by political correctness, perhaps less than other forums, but it's there. The reactions from other participants were as I had expected.

The closing comments from floor, however, were most interesting. While some representatives from international organizations like IOM (International Organization for Migration) denied that FGM has anything to do with Islam, for which she was applauded by the plenary, the Austrian representative surprisingly backed the counterjihad:

    I object to a certain debate culture which is employed more and more often by a certain group of participants. Disagreement with someone else's opinion is immediately denounced as hate speech. The accusation of hate speech is a serious one. We have been dealing intensively with this phenomenon in these human dimension meeting for many years. We take part in these human dimension meetings precisely because we need to find solutions to the current grave problems. The localization and identification of the problems and their implications are an important prerequisite to finding a solution.

    Now if a certain negative social behavior – and here I am alluding to this meeting's topic – like FGM and forced marriages, is manifested only in very specific religious and ethnic migrant groups, it must be possible to identify this group. This is not stereotyping, but a fact, and definitely not hate speech.

    To conclude, educating female milk farmers in [the Austrian state of] Styria on the dangers of FGM will not be helpful.

    [The Ambassador was alluding to the frequent call for education in order to combat violence against women.]

These clear and politically incorrect words were, in turn, applauded by our small group and some of the Catholic representatives. It was interesting to note that, in general , the Catholic bloc is slowly starting to support us.

The meeting was then adjourned. I suppose there was also a collective sigh of relief that the counterjihad group was finally silenced.

I must mention that I was informed off the record that our written interventions and recommendations were close to not being accepted by ODIHR.

Censorship?

To sum up: this last supplementary meeting in 2009 was a successful one from our point of view, as was the entire year. We took part in three OSCE conferences and were able either to steer the debate in our direction or to prevent certain poisonous statements from becoming consensus. Our groups have become visible in the international arena, and we are now no longer marginalized, but a (small) force to contend with.