Remembering David Littman, a Warrior for Human Rights

On May 20, 2012, at the age of 78, a unique fighting spirit was quelled with the passing of David Littman. For decades his tall, lanky figure and shock of grey hair could be seen jaunting into the meeting rooms of the UN human rights world in Geneva — to the chagrin of the representatives of Muslim states and UN officials. In the two minutes that are allotted speakers from non-governmental organizations, David Littman would gather his notes, summon his unique voice, take aim at antisemites, Islamic extremists, and human rights frauds — and fire.

The resulting oratorical battles were infamous. Time and again the bullies representing states such as Egypt or Iran or Pakistan would interrupt David’s measly two minutes with points of order, inventing objections of all kinds.  UN administrators were flummoxed by a man who refused to play by a set of rules designed to favor double-speak and adapted to silence the likes of David Littman.

In the early days of the “reformed” UN Human Rights Council that was created in 2006, David fearlessly quoted what he plainly and rightly called “the genocidal Jihadist Hamas Charter” and called attention to violations of the human rights of women, minorities, and dissidents in Muslim states. It was a critical moment in the history of the UN human rights system, as the representatives of Muslim countries were successfully commandeering the new UN human rights weapon to manufacture a shield based on alleged religious persecution. David Littman tried to sound the alarm and stand in the way of the oncoming tanks.

In June 2008 and in response to David’s interventions, however, then president of the UN Human Rights Council, Doru Romulus Costea, slammed the door on criticism of the laws and practices of Islamic states under Sharia law. Even pointing to abhorrent cultural practices as widespread, tolerated, or encouraged in these particular countries and communities intruded on the newly fabricated religious buffer zone.

Here is a portion of an exchange at the Human Rights Council in Geneva which took place over the course of more than an hour, with a lengthy suspension of the meeting for “consultations” on the threat David’s comments posed. The formal “agenda item” under discussion was “Item 8:  Follow-up and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,” the 1993 document which contains a section on “the equal status and human rights of women.”  The date was June 16, 2008.

David Littman: In the context of integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations system, we wish to draw attention to four examples of widespread violence against women that we believe merits far greater attention from the Council. One. Regarding FGM [female genital mutilation], we are making available our detailed written statement.

President (Ambassador Doru Romulus Costea of Romania): We have a point of order. Egypt, you have the floor sir.

Egypt (Roshdy Hassan):  Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, I have a copy of this statement by the speaker. … The first paragraph, you talk about Egypt and the Sharia law. In the second paragraph you talk about Sudan, Pakistan and the Sharia law. The third and fourth paragraphs are on the Sharia law. So I don’t know what is the point of making him continue his statement while we know it will be objected…

Pakistan (Imran Ahmed Siddiqui):  Mr. President. … We have strong objections on any discussion, any direct or indirect discussion, any out of context, selective discussion on the Sharia law in this Council. … This is not the forum to discuss religious sensitivity. It will amount to spreading hatred against certain members of the Council. … So we would again request you to please use your authority to bar any such discussion again, at the Council.

President: …this Council is not prepared to discuss matters…religious matters in depth. Consequently we should not do it. … I will give back the floor to the representative of the NGO in question, with the understanding that as long as the statement will restrain from making a judgment or evaluation of any particular set of legislation which is, indeed, not the point of our discussion, this statement may continue.

Despite the serious setback for freedom of expression – which has haunted the Council ever since – David did continue, as did the harassment.

Littman: Thank you very much, Mr. President. Regarding FGM, our detailed written statement discusses the reasons why 96% of Egyptian women are still subjected to FGM despite state legislation in 1997 outlawing the practice. “Almost 90% of the female population in the north of Sudan undergo FGM which, in many cases, is practiced in its most extreme form known as infibulation” – we are quoting from the Report by the [UN] Special Rapporteur Halima Warzazi. UNICEF figures indicate that over 3 million young girls are mutilated each year in 32 countries, 29 of which are member states of the OIC [Organization of the Islamic Conference]. We believe that only a fatwa from Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Sayyad Tantawi – replacing the ambiguous fatwas of 1949, 1951 and 1981 – will change this barbaric, criminal practice, which is now growing even in Europe.

Egypt: Mr. President…This is an attempt to raise a bad traditional practice to Islam. Sheikh Al-Azar is the president of the largest and the biggest and the oldest Islamic university in the world… Islam will not be crucified in this Council.

Littman: “The Government of Pakistan vigorously condemns the practice of so-called ‘honor killings’ and that such actions do not find any place in our religion or law” – this is a quotation from President Musharraf on 28 April 2000. Yet this murderous practice seems to be on the increase in Pakistan and elsewhere – even in Europe in certain communities. It must be criminalized and the law strictly applied. The stoning of women for alleged adultery still occurs regularly in Iran, Sudan and other countries. In Iran, they are buried up to their waists in pits and blunt stones are used thereby increasing their agony in death. The marriage age for girls in Iran remains at 9 years old. In the year 2000, the Iranian Parliament attempted to increase the age to 14 but the law was overturned by the Council of Guardians. Last week …

Iran: …Mr. President, the statement and the references made by this speaker in this statement is false and has nothing to do with the realities in my country.

Cuba:…he’s introducing a theme that in any case should have been addressed under Item 4 of the agenda. In that case you have to interrupt his statement. He is making a list of references to countries using practices that do not relate to the agenda item under discussion

Littman:  Thank you Mr. President. Integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations system is part of item 8…

With his marked British accent David had one particular rhetorical flourish that worked its way into most every one of his speeches — quoting Shakespeare. In January of 2008, the Human Rights Council held another of its special sessions fixated on condemning Israel and adopting a resolution calling for the “immediate protection of Palestinian civilians” — Israeli civilians be damned.  At the time, Israel had had the audacity to respond to thousands of rockets launched from Gaza where the Hamas-led government had no compunction about using its own civilians as human shields.David attempted to draw attention to the Hamas provocation. Here is the exchange on January 24, 2008:

David Littman: …Sir, in order to understand the Palestinian self-inflicted tragedy in the Gaza Strip, there is an urgent need to reconsider the basic implications of the binding, genocidal Hamas Charter, concerning which we have been warning human rights bodies, high commissioners, and special rapporteurs for 20 years – all to no effect. … Let us consider the bellicose article 13 of this binding, Jihadist Charter, which categorically declares: “Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement. There is no solution to the Palestinian question except by Jihad. All initiatives, proposals, and international conferences are a waste of time and vain endeavors.”  This racist, Judeophobic, Nazi-like Charter proudly quotes Hassan al-Banna [gavel]

President (Doru Romulus Costea): I would like to call the distinguished representative to focus on the topic at hand. If you please, sir.

Littman: Sir, I am, and will continue. This racist, Judeophobic, Nazi-like Charter proudly quotes…: “Israel will exist and continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” Article 2. Mr. President, surely article 3 and 4 of the Genocide Convention is here applicable [gavel]

President:  Let me warn you again, sir, friendly and kindly, that we have an issue that this Council has been called to address.  I would strongly urge you to focus on the issue of this session. You have the floor.

Littman: Sir, the issue is what Hamas and the government in Gaza wishes to do to Israel. I will continue. [gavel]

President: Excuse me, sir. You are making me cut your right to continue. We are not debating here the issue that you have mentioned and I would kindly ask you, for the sake of the whole audience here, and for the sake of the gravity of this topic, to focus on the issue at hand.  Let me kindly tell you that this is the last warning. You have the floor, sir.

Littman: Rather than speak, I will conclude with one sentence:  There is a general malaise in the air, a feeling that something is rotten in the state of this Council.

Indeed. The nauseating veneer of civility on the part of UN apparatchiks cannot disguise the moral rot that David Littman recognized and could not abide. Though many in those elegant Geneva parlors will be breathing a sigh of relief that his unconventional style will disturb their comfort zones no more, sadly, the silence will be deafening.