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I am in Geneva attending the 21st. session of the Human Rights Council. How and why I got here is an interesting journey.

Three years ago I was in Oxford attending a Muslim Reform Conference

I noticed a distinguished grey haired man in the audience making copious notes. At the end of the conference, this man made some very valuable suggestions on how liberal Muslims might be able to face off the Islamists and get their voices heard. Fascinated by his research, knowledge and contacts, I introduced myself and discovered his name is Roy Brown with IHEU – International Humanist and Ethical Union Among his other accolades, Roy Brown is responsible for helping document Europe’s secular charter. He is founder of World Population Foundation (WPF) which promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights, seen as key to improving the quality of life of women. From 2004 until 2010 Roy also served as IHEU Main Representative at the UN, Geneva, working with the UN Commission on Human Rights and its successor, the Human Rights Council. He prepared written submissions and spoken at the plenary sessions of the Commission and Council on issues as diverse as Female Genital Mutilation, the plight of the Dalits in India, slavery in North Africa, witchcraft and witch hunts in Africa, freedom of expression, the concept of defamation of religion, the incompatibility of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam with the Universal Declaration, and the role of the Holy See in helping child abusers escape justice and its failure to honour its obligations under the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We got chatting and he mentioned that he lives in Geneva where IHEU is accredited with the UNHRC but they hardly get a word in edgewise because as soon as a non-Muslim critiques anything to do with Islam or Muslims, the 57 member OIC – Organization of Islamic Co-operation flexes its hefty muscle and stops them from speaking claiming Islamophobia.

I suggested I would be happy to oblige and put my neck online to take the job of critiquing Islamists and especially the Salafis for destroying my faith. As the cliché goes – that was history and today I am attending my third session at the UNHRC. Personally it’s been an amazing journey of learning and exposing the agendas of the Islamists and OIC. I’m delighted to be connected to IHEU because they are secular and committed to exposing human rights violations globally including the Muslim world. In past sessions I have urged the UNHRC to declare honour killings a universal criminal offence, identified Sharia as a threat to the West, asked Pakistan to repeal the Blasphemy law and tapped the OIC about their stance on religious tolerance reminding them that they need to learn to be tolerant in OIC states before they can start complaining of in-tolerance against Muslims in the West.

The UNHRC is a fascinating place to see how world politics play out. It consists of member state, observer states and NGO’s. Thrice a year the Council convenes so that countries can present their human rights status – this is done as a UPR (Universal Periodic Review). It’s interesting to see that the countries with the most blatant human rights violations keep condemning others without any reflection on their own status. As well those countries known to be politically hostile to each other, will agree not to mention each other’s weaknesses e.g. India won’t talk about the Blasphemy law in Pakistan if Pakistan does not bring up the Dalit issue! One can just watch and wonder how the place operates.

I also learned that the OIC is basically at the UN only to slam USA and Israel at every chance they get. However hats off to the High Commissioner Navi Pillay who has been firm on many violations and speaks with no political correctness.

Since none of us can address each and every problem, we pick what impacts us the most. The main topic at the Council was Syria but other issues also came up in the General Debate.

This session we tackled three important issues, our statements being made on behalf of IHEU and the Centre for Inquiry.

On religious tolerance, we critiqued the Saudis for Extremism and spoke about OIC support for such atrocities –

We also made a joint statement on forced and child marriages – copies of all statement will be posted on the IHEU website this week

The UNHRC has recognized that forced marriage is a form of contemporary slavery and there were many sessions about this topic.

Our third intervention was about the ban on women’s education in Iran and we urged the UNHRC to look into this problem seriously.

One advantage of spending the whole week at the UNHRC is that we get to attend Plenary meetings and conferences that take place on site. Since we speak as an NGO sometimes we wait the whole day before our turn comes so we make ourselves useful. This year three young interns from Universities in UK worked with us to learn more about the process and IHEU is to be commended for hosting them and giving them an overview of the process.

An interesting panel at the Council main chamber was about intimidation or reprisals against individuals and groups who speak out and expose human rights violations. This is the first time such a panel has taken place and Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon spoke on a video broadcast stressing the importance of reporting smear campaigns against member states, observers and NGOs who speak out. Having received my share of hostility for exposing human rights violations in the OIC, I could relate to this problem.

I also attended a session titled “Forced and Child Marriage – A global problem” which was hosted by 6 NGO’s as well as the Office of the UNHR commissioner and screened a documentary by ‘Girls Not Brides’

which showed bone chilling statistics. Every year an estimated 10 million girls under 18 are married with little or no say in the matter and in the developing world one in seven girls is married before reaching her 15th birthday with some child brides as young as 8 or 9. While these numbers may seem normal to many communities, fact is that forced marriage is a form of child slavery and the health impact on these young girls is devastating, many dying in child birth or before the age of 25.

At this session a priest from Pakistan Fr. Abid Habib made a presentation on forced conversions of mostly Hindus and Christians but also some Ahmadis, leading to forced marriages in Pakistan. He presented statistics to support his petition and commented how the dreaded blasphemy law in Pakistan has terrified victims of forced marriages from speaking out. The norm is if a non-Muslim complains to a Muslim official, they usually end up being slammed with made-up accusations, making the victim a criminal.

Fr. Habib suggested recommendations that would help alleviate the problem. One recommendation was a balanced and tolerant curriculum. Fr. Habib pointed out the curriculum in many Pakistani schools that teaches hate against Christians, Hindus, Bangladesh and India. At a conference on August 31, 2012 The Catholic Bishops National Commission for Justice and Peace revealed troubling statistics and examples from existing school books. For example a Grade 10 Pakistan Studies book from the Punjab board referring to the 1971 split with what is now Bangladesh states “Hindus completely controlled the education sector in East Pakistan. They motivated Bengalis against Pakistan”. Similarly a passage from a Grade 6 social studies book from the Sindh textbook board states “Christian pastors had increased their influence a lot…they used to hold open gatherings in cities and villages glorifying the Christian faith and spoke ill of other religions.”

Considering that the national education budget for Pakistan in 2011/12 is only 0.9.percent of the GDP as compared to the Defence budget of 2.4 billion rupees, it’s no wonder that focus on education is dwindling.

The problems are many and few solutions but being at the UNHRC, one hopes that the issues that get tabled, will also be under the scrutiny of the UN.