The world's first Muslim human rights commission

The Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission heralds an expansion of dialogue about human rights abuses in member states. Could a Muslim human rights commission also revitalize the image of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation?
Marie Juul Petersen
3 January 2012

In June 2011, 57 foreign ministers met in Kazakhstan to establish the world's first Muslim human rights commission: the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission. In January this year, the commission will hold its first session.

Behind the commission is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second-largest intergovernmental organization in the world, surpassed only by the United Nations. The OIC consists of 57 self-declared Muslim states from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As Saad Khan notes in Reasserting International Islam: A Focus on the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Other Islamic Institutions, the OIC covers 30 percent of the UN membership, 25 percent of the earth's surface, and over 20 percent of the global population.

The OIC was founded in 1969 with the purpose of strengthening solidarity among Muslims. In its first decades, the organization focused especially on the Palestinian cause, the protection of Islamic holy sites, and the strengthening of economic cooperation between member states. In 2005, a plan for reform of the organization – the Ten Year Programme of Action – was introduced, resulting in major changes. Today the OIC is increasingly involved in areas such as humanitarian aid and development, environment, and women's rights. The new human rights commission is an important part of this process; "Establishment of an independent human rights body by the OIC Member States is considered to be one of the major steps in the transformation process of the OIC," states a Feb. 2009 OIC newsletter.

According to the statutes, the new human rights commission and its 18 independent experts shall work to "advance human rights" and "support the Member States' efforts to consolidate civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights." This is to be done primarily through counseling and legal advice to member states (e.g. on how to report to the UN or how to mainstream human rights into national legislation), but also through information campaigns and research and cooperation with other human rights organizations. As such, the commission will not handle cases on human rights violations, as the UN Human Rights Council and various regional human rights commissions do, but will function as an advisory organ, modeled after the UN Advisory Committee to the Human Rights Council.

There are several reasons why the OIC has established a human rights commission now. First, the organization wants to participate more actively in the international community. "It is all about becoming part of the international community," an OIC staff member says. The war on terror has not only resulted in conflicts between the west and the Muslim world; it has also, paradoxically, emphasized the inevitability of the international community and the impossibility of maintaining parallel structures.

Rather than isolating itself, the OIC seeks to promote itself as a partner of the west; as an exponent of a moderate, modern Islam, fully compatible with the values and principles of the international community. At the meeting in Kazakhstan, the Secretary General, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, said that he hoped "this body will boost OIC's credibility in the eyes of the outside world, helping to increase the confidence of the OIC."

Second, the OIC needs to strengthen legitimacy and support in member state populations. In the 1980s and 1990s many people did not even know the organization (hence the nickname "Oh I See") and among those that did, most considered it to be an irrelevant gathering of paralyzed states, capable of agreeing only on yet another condemnation of Israel or a fatwa on theological details, while lacking in initiatives that would make a real difference for people on the street. With initiatives such as the increase in humanitarian aid, cooperation with civil society organizations, and the establishment of a human rights commission, the OIC hopes to improve its image, signaling a greater will to reach the population.

The need for such a sea change has, of course, only grown after the Arab Spring. Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and even Bahrain all clearly indicate that popular demands for welfare, democracy, and rights are impossible to ignore in the long run.

Third, the establishment of the commission may reflect changes in power relations internally in the OIC. Historically, Saudi Arabia and Iran, both major contributors to the organizational budget, have been dominant voices in the OIC. While they maintain a strong position in the organization, recent years have seen the emergence of new powerful voices, with Turkey and other so-called 'moderate Muslim states', such as Malaysia, Morocco, and Indonesia, gaining increasing clout in the organization. While Saudi Arabia and Iran tend to promote a political agenda, including the spread of theocratic influence, Turkey, Malaysia, Morocco, and Indonesia seem to envision the OIC more as a forum for a cultural agenda, pushing for moderation and dialogue. And they have played an important role in promoting the establishment of the human rights commission.

On a somewhat different level, the 2005 election of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as Secretary General has further contributed to speeding up the establishment of the human rights commission. It was Ihsanoglu who personally established a panel of five independent human rights experts to formulate the draft statutes of the commission. And it was Ihsanoglu who managed to make all parties come to an agreement when the final statutes were to be adopted.

Now, what kind of human rights commission will the OIC's Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission be? Before its first meeting, it is difficult to say anything definite. However, there are signs pointing in different directions.

One potentially problematic aspect is the limited independence ascribed to the commission in its statutes. As noted in Article 13, "the Commission shall support the OIC’s position on human rights at the international level and consolidate cooperation among the Member States in the area of human rights" (emphasis added), in the same way that it can only offer consultancy to "approving Member States" (Article 14, emphasis added). Furthermore, the commission does not have an explicit mandate to investigate human rights violations in member states, but is instead only allowed to "conduct studies and research on priority human rights issues" (Article 16). And finally, the commission’s recommendations are not binding but must be approved by the Council of Foreign Ministers.

The choice of location of the commission's secretariat is another matter of concern. Does the location of a human rights commission in Jeddah send the right signals? Staff in OIC emphasize the importance of distinguishing between the OIC and Saudi Arabia; just as the UN is not the USA simply because its headquarters are in New York, the OIC is not Saudi Arabia simply because its General Secretariat is in Jeddah. Nevertheless, the placement of the commission in a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records will inevitably damage the reputation of the commission.

Third, the group of experts making up the commission is, for good or bad, a mixed bag. Apart from civil society representatives, UN diplomats, and university professors with several years of human rights expertise, the commission also includes people whose merits within the area of human rights are limited, as well as some who are, in fact, best known for their strong opposition to at least parts of the universal human rights agenda.

Despite all these concerns, there are several promising aspects of the new human rights commission. Most importantly, the commission is the product of a strong political will on the part of all member states to create a human rights mechanism. As a staff member says, "What was part of the ten year plan has been accomplished in half the time – that shows the unanimity on this topic."

Second, with the new commission, OIC's member states have established a much-needed forum for internal criticism and introspection. In the past, the OIC has had a tendency to focus more on human rights violations outside the OIC than inside it (e.g. in relation to Muslim minorities in the west), while criticism of the OIC's own human rights violations has come from sources outside the OIC. As a representative from one of the member states said at the meeting in Kazakhstan, where the commission was established: "This is the first time such an exercise is being carried out in the Muslim world. It will be 100 times better to hear what is happening in our countries from our own people rather than from the outside world."

Third, and despite the aforementioned criticism of some experts in the commission, there are also positive things to say about them. The 18 experts are not all government representatives, as Iran allegedly would have preferred, but more or less independent representatives from civil society, university professors, and diplomats. The majority has substantial human rights expertise at national, regional or international levels. At least seven experts have been, or are, members of national human rights departments, committees, and commissions; one is a member of a regional human rights commission, and three have been, or are, part of their country's delegation to the UN. Three of the experts are women and while this number certainly leaves room for improvement, it is still high for an organization which has less than 5 percent female staff in its General Secretariat.

Finally, the commission can be a vehicle for stronger relations between the OIC and civil society. Although relations have yet to be formalised, Article 15 opens up cooperation with civil society: "The Commission shall promote and support the role of memberstate-accredited national institutions and civil society organizations active in the area of human rights." The fact that the commission will hold its meetings in different locations each time (the first is to be held in Indonesia in January) further facilitates cooperation with national civil society organisations.

In the end, however, the future of the new human rights commission will not depend solely on the commission's experts, OIC member states or civil society organizations. A high-level UN representative, who has followed the establishment of the commission closely, says that the commission's success depends just as much on the international community and its will to get involved with the commission, shaping its thinking and action in the right direction: "I am optimistic as regards the commission – as long as it receives the right technical support. It is important for relevant regional and international mechanisms to get involved with the OIC commission, help it get started in a mutually reinforcing way with other similar mechanisms and confirm to the OIC that this has the potential to become something good – for the OIC and for international community."

This article builds on several interviews with staff members of the OIC General Secretariat in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as well as interviews with UN and civil society representatives carried out in October 2011.

The OIC was formerly known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, but the name was changed to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in June 2011.

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