Human rights in Muslim-majority countries
Human rights in Muslim-majority countries have been a hot-button issue for many decades. International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) consistently find human rights violations in Muslim-majority countries. Amongst the human rights issues that are frequently under the spotlight are gay rights, the right to consensual sex outside of marriage, individual freedom of speech and political opinion. The issue of women’s rights is also the subject of fierce debate.
When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, Saudi Arabia refused to sign it as they were of the view that sharia law had already set out the rights of men and women. To sign the UDHR was deemed unnecessary. What the UDHR did do was to start a debate on human rights in the Islamic world. Following years of deliberation, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) adopted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam.
International Human Rights Rank Indicator
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The International Human Rights Rank Indicator (IHRRI), which combines scores for a wide range of human rights, is produced by the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD); ratings in the table below are as of 11 October 2014. All Muslim countries have a human rights rating less than 62%. Here is the percent and decimal of each country's contribution of human rights followed. The population percentage figures below are from the Pew Research Center report, The Future of the Global Muslim Population, as of 27 January 2011; all majority Muslim countries (with population over 50% Muslim) are listed.
|Country||Muslim % of
|International Human Rights|
Rank Indicator rating
|United Arab Emirates||76||61.49%|
Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam
The CDHR was signed by member states of the OIC in 1990 at the 19th Conference of Foreign Ministers held in Cairo, Egypt. It was seen as the answer to the UDHR. In fact, the CDHR was "patterned after the UN-sponsored UDHR of 1948". The object of the CDHR was to "serve as a guide for member states on human rights issues." CDHR translated the Qur'anic teachings as follows: "All men are equal in terms of basic human dignity and basic obligations and responsibilities, without any discrimination on the basis of race, colour, language, belief, sex, religion, political affiliation, social status or other considerations. True religion is the guarantee for enhancing such dignity along the path to human integrity." On top of references to the Qur'an, the CDHR also referenced prophetic teachings and Islamic legal tradition.
While the CDHR can be seen as a significant human rights milestone for Muslim-majority countries, Western commentators have been critical of it. For one, it is a heavily qualified document. The CDHR is pre-empted by shariah law – "all rights and freedoms stipulated [in the Cairo Declaration] are subject to Islamic Shari'ah." In turn, though member countries appear to follow shariah law, these laws seem to be ignored altogether when it comes to "[repressing] their citizens using torture, and imprisonment without trial and disappearance." Abdullah al-Ahsan describes this as the Machiavellian attempt which is "turning out to be catastrophic in the Muslim world."
Saudi Arabia has been under the human rights spotlight for a number of decades, receiving increased attention from the early 1990s onwards. Much of the period between the 1940s to 1980s was characterized by Saudi’s perceived passivity on the issue as well as its refusal to sign the UDHR. The period thereafter has seen a significant uptake on the matter. It all began with Saudi’s handling of the Second Gulf War in 1991, which created much unhappiness and opposition amongst its citizens. Thereafter, a group of Saudi citizens attempted to establish a non-governmental human rights organization called the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights ("CDLR"). Within weeks of its formation, Saudi authorities arrested many of its members and supporters. Following the release of its main founder and president Almasari, the committee was reformed in London where it received attention from human rights organisations worldwide. CDLR’s work shed much needed light on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia that was previously clouded in secrecy.
The events which have followed since the early 1990s such as the end of the Cold War, the Gulf War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States of America, has further impacted the issue of human rights in Saudi, more so than any other country. Since these events, Saudi has steadily opened itself up to scrutiny by international agencies; they have also participated and engaged the human rights front more actively. Amongst them, the country has allowed visits from Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups. Saudi has also joined the international human rights legal arrangements which means that the country is legally subject to Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination ("CERD"), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women ("CEDAW"), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ("CAT") and the Convention on the Rights of the Child ("CRC").
While some have lauded the progress made, others have remained highly critical of the country. In a 2013 human rights review of Saudi by CountryWatch, it is said that Saudi has a "poor record of human rights" with the country’s law "not [providing] for the protection of many basic rights". The report goes on to detail the many shortcomings in the country such as corruption, lack of transparency, the presence of corporal punishments and the lack of separation between the three branches of the State i.e. Judiciary, Executive and Legislature.
By 2017, Saudi Arabian authorities had intensified their efforts in cracking down against human rights activists. Many activists, including one who provided information to Amnesty International, have been detained or appeared in court for their work acknowledging the Saudi authorities plan to continue their crackdown on peaceful opposition. Human rights activists are vanishing, prosecuted, jailed or forced into exile which shows authorities' intolerance with freedom of expression.
The human rights situation in Pakistan is generally regarded as poor by domestic and international observers. Pakistan is a center of Islamic fundamentalism. Initially, the 1973 Constitution twice enjoins "adequate provision shall be made for minorities" in its preamble, and the Fourth Amendment (1975) guaranteed at least six seats in the National Assembly would be held by minorities to safeguard their "legitimate interests". However, the human rights record of Pakistan declined under the dictatorship of the US-supported General Zia. General Zia introduced Sharia Law which led to Islamization of the country. The current regime in Pakistan has been responsible for torture, extrajudicial executions and other human rights violations. Honor killings are also common in Pakistan.
Turkey is considered by many as being the exemplary country of the Muslim world where a satisfactory compromise is made between the values of Islamic and Western civilisations. One of the main reasons cited for Turkey’s significant improvement in its human rights efforts over the past few decades is the country’s push towards satisfying European Union pre-conditions for membership. In 2000, AI, on the back of visits made to the country to observe human rights practices, found that Turkey was demonstrating signs of greater transparency compared to other Muslim countries. In 2002, an AI report stated that the Turkish parliament passed three laws "…aimed at bringing Turkish law into line with European human rights standards." The same report further noted that "AI was given permission to open a branch in Turkey under the Law on Associations."
Some of the latest human rights steps taken by Turkey include: "the fourth judicial reform package adopted in April, which strengthens the protection of fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and the fight against impunity for cases of torture and ill-treatment; the peace process which aims to end terrorism and violence in the Southeast of the country and pave the way for a solution to the Kurdish issue; the September 2013 democratisation package which sets out further reform, covering important issues such as the use of languages other than Turkish, and minority rights."
Further progress were also recorded on the women’s rights front where Turkey was the first country to ratify the Council of Europe Convention against Domestic Violence. Also, in 2009, the Turkish government established a Parliamentary Committee on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women to look at reducing the inequality between the sexes.
Despite all these advancements, there are still many significant human rights issues troubling the country. In a 2013 human rights report by the United States Department of State, amongst the problems to receive significant criticism were government interference with freedom of expression and assembly, lack of transparency and independence of the judiciary and inadequate protection of vulnerable populations. Human Rights Watch have even gone as far as to declare that there has been a "human rights rollback" in the country. According to the report, this has taken place amidst the mass anti-government protests which took place in 2013. Under the current leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the ruling party has become increasingly intolerant of "political opposition, public protest, and critical media".
The Islamic Republic of Iran has one of the worst human rights records of any country in the world. Amongst the most serious human rights issues plaguing the republic are "the government’s manipulation of the electoral process, which severely limited citizens’ right to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on civil liberties, including the freedoms of assembly, speech, and press; and disregard for the physical integrity of persons whom it arbitrarily and unlawfully detained, tortured, or killed."
In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that despite changes to the penal code, the death penalty was still liberally meted resulting in one of the highest rates of executions in the world. On top of that, security authorities have been repressing free speech and dissent. Many opposition parties, labour unions and student groups were banned and scores of political prisoners were still locked up.
The country has generally closed itself off to outside interference. The government has refused the request of the United Nations to have Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed report on the human rights situation in the country though they did however announce that two UN experts would be allowed to visit in 2015.
- Women in Islam
- Arab Charter on Human Rights
- History of human rights in the early Islamic Caliphate
- Human rights in the Middle East
- Human rights in the Qur'anic texts
- al-Ahsan, Abdullah (2009). "Law, Religion and Human Dignity in the Muslim World Today: An Examination of OIC's Cairo Declaration of Human Rights". Journal of Law and Religion: 571.
- Elizabeth Mayer, Ann (1995). Islam and Human Rights Tradition and Politics. Westview Press.
- Article 24 of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights.
- M. Alwasil, Abdulaziz (2010). "Saudi Arabia's engagement in, and interaction with, the UN human rights system: an analytical review". The International Journal of Human Rights: 1085.
- A. Alhargan, Raed (2011). "The impact of the UN human rights system and human rights INGOs on the Saudi Government with special reference to the spiral model". The International Journal of Human Rights: 604.
- Youngblood-Coleman, Denise. (2013). Country Review: Saudi Arabia at page 54.
- "Saudi Arabia steps up ruthless crackdown against human rights activists". www.amnesty.org. Retrieved 2017-02-19.
- "unhchr.ch - unhchr Resources and Information". Retrieved 28 April 2017.
- "CBC News In Depth: Pakistan". Retrieved 28 April 2017.
- "Countries". Retrieved 28 April 2017.
- Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2003—Turkey, http://insanhaklarimerkezi.bilgi.edu.tr/source/turkce/184.108.40.206/Amnesty%202003-Turkey.pdf (accessed Dec. 5, 2008).
- "EU-Turkey: Progress in women's human rights". European Commission. 2013. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
- "Turkey's Human Rights Rollback" (PDF).
- "Human Rights Watch World Report 2015: Iran".