June 18, 2008 / 5:23 PM / 12 years ago

UN's Arbour opposes "taboos" in human rights body

GENEVA, June 18 (Reuters) - United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour voiced concern on Wednesday over “taboos” on discussion in a key U.N. forum of subjects that Islamic countries see as offending their religion.

Her comments followed a row at the forum, the 47-nation Human Rights Council, after Islamic countries intervened this week to stop mention of their system of sharia, or Islamic law, and the body’s Romanian president appeared to back their stance.

“It is very concerning in a Council which should be... the guardian of freedom of expression, to see constraints or taboos, or subjects that become taboo for discussion,” the former Canadian High Court judge told a news conference.

Arbour, who steps down this month after four years in the post, did not refer specifically to the incident in the Council on Monday when Egypt, backed by Pakistan and Iran, said referring to sharia there meant “crucifying” Islamic states.”

But she pointed to treatment of homosexuals in many countries — prosecuted as criminals in a number of Islamic and some other states — as “fundamental” to debate on sexual discrimination around the world.

“It is difficult for me to accept that a Council that is the guardian of legality, prevents the presentation of serious analysis or discussion on questions of the evolution of the concept of non-discrimination,” Arbour declared.

Monday’s row centred on a scheduled three-minute speech on behalf of two non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the Association for World Education (AWE), calling on Muslim countries to take firm action against “honour killings” and female genital mutilation.

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The NGOs’ speaker was repeatedly interrupted by Egypt, whose delegate, as seen on a U.N. webcast, accused him of trying to link these practices with Islam, and said discussion of sharia in the Council “will not happen” — although the European Union and Canada argued that the address should go ahead.

Islam, the Egyptian delegate declared, “will not be crucified in this Council”.

The affair increased alarm among independent rights groups and some Western and Latin American countries over the direction of the Council — set up in 2006 to replace a discredited predecessor.

A Pakistan delegate — whose country speaks for the 57- nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in the rights body — said the grouping had “strong objections” to any direct or indirect discussion of sharia.

Joining Egypt in asking the president, Romania’s Daru Romulus Costea, to bar any debate that took this path, he said that if allowed it would “amount to spreading of hatred against certain members of this Council”.

Costea said barring a U.N.-accredited NGO from speaking could start the Council “downwards on quite a slippery slope”, but he suspended the session and — according to other NGO representatives — told the two NGOs not to mention sharia.

The Romanian diplomat, who was the EU’s choice for the post a year ago and hands over this week to a Nigerian envoy, did not say when asked at a news conference on Wednesday whether his action amounted to imposing a taboo.

But he said such issues should be avoided as there were no religious experts in the Council. The body is largely dominated by an informal bloc of OIC and African states — usually backed by China, Russia and Cuba — that often condemn “defamation of religion” and “Islamophobia”. (For the full webcast of the Human Rights Council session where Monday’s row occurred, click on www.un.org/webcast/unhrc/ ) (Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Philippa Fletcher)

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