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.