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When Rights and Rules Collide

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In my work as a human rights advocate, I am frequently asked about what we should do in cases where human rights conflict with religious or civil laws.

This question comes up most often when we see press reports about the victims of Sharia law, like those horrific cases of adultresses being stoned to death in the public square. This is definitely cruel and inhuman punishment, forbidden by international law -- but it is allegedly in line with Islamic law.

Two cases have come to light in recent weeks that exemplify this kind of dilemma.

The first is the case of a rape victim in Saudi Arabia. She had gotten into a car with a former boyfriend in order to get a photo that he had promised to return to her. Then the two were jumped and raped. And so she now faces 200 lashes and six months in prison, because she entered a car, unsupervised, with a man who wasn't her relative.

When I was young, I was grounded for getting into cars with boys. But this young woman is going to jail. And she is going to be tortured with 200 lashes. Can a woman even survive 200 lashes? How is that not cruel and inhuman punishment?

The other recent case is of a teacher, a British national, who got into trouble in Sudan for enabling her students to name a teddy bear Muhammed. She got sentenced to 15 days in jail, luckily avoiding a possible 40 lashes.

Wait a minute. Muhammed (or any of the many variations thereof) is a very common name in Islamic countries. But kids can't give that name to a teddy bear, lest their teacher be punished?

Why then do they let Muslims name their children Muhammad, or some derivation of that name?

After all, one of the 9/11 hijackers was named Mohamed Atta, which name can be translated into "Muhammad 'Ata as-Sayyid".

That's OK, but giving a beloved teddy bear a common name is not?

Again, it's a cultural thing, but that doesn't necessarily make it right.

I don't want to offend anybody, but human rights always trump religious or civil laws. After all, anyone can start a religion or a civil entity and make up all kinds of misguided rules for his followers. See Jim Jones. See David Koresh. See Warren Jeffs. And see any number of ridiculous dictatorships around the world.

See also the U.S. Military Commissions Act of 2006, which abolishes the right of habeas corpus. See also the use of torture by the U.S. government.

On the other hand, human rights are universal. In the wake of World War II, the United Nations assembled a committee, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would define a worldwide, inter-cultural set of non-derogable human rights.

It wasn't an easy undertaking. There was a lot of fighting, a lot of arguments. But, in the end, this inter-cultural group, representing virtually all regions and cultures of the world, agreed on the 30 articles set forth by the Declaration.

These rights were determined to be the fair universal standards required to ensure the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The cultural diversity involved in developing this Declaration is a testament to its universality and lack of bias.

Therefore, it clearly trumps any arbitrary religious or civic law.

Human rights are always foremost.

No excuses.



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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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