A devoted defender of human rights – Interview with His Excellency Mr Mousa Burayzat, Ambassador of Jordan to the United Nations

Mousa BurayzatHe was one of the first ambassadors to sit on the Human Rights Council, and he is known as a devoted defender of human rights.
Q : You have been participating in the Human Rights Council ever since its beginning. What do you think about the Council and what has the first year been like ?
The Council — taking everything into consideration — has been rather successful. Of course, we feel that in terms of implementing its resolutions, particularly when it comes to certain conflict situations, the Council has not been able to deliver. We should bear in mind that the Council is only what its members would like it to be. We have seen some kind of selectivity in terms of interest and enthusiasm. Some resolutions went through and were implemented. However, some members were lukewarm towards other resolutions, particularly those relating to the question of human rights of Palestinians under occupation.
We also have to remember that the Council is merely part of the same international system as the former Human Rights Commission. Sometimes it is the same delegates that had sat on the Commission who are sitting in the Council. Of course, there are new methodologies ; the new spirit that has helped a little bit to push forward the consensus more than it did in the past. But there is still some more ground to cover.
Q : Are you happy so far with the Human Rights Council ?
I’m not happy when I look at what the Council has achieved in terms of issues like Palestine for instance. We managed to get consensus on Darfur once we put aside politics and focused on human rights. There the Council refused to accept one version of the situation, thus it has been able to see the situation for itself on the ground. It managed to recognize the efforts carried out by the Sudanese government while assessing where there are still some gaps. Of course, there are some shortcomings, and the Council has been able to work on those areas that need greater improvement in Darfur.
I’m happy to see the progress made on institution-building. I’m happy to see that the Council has put together a rather fair and objectively balanced package. I’m not happy when it comes to the situation in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, for the simple reason that a first consensus was not possible because of a group of states did not appreciate the gravity of the situation there.
You may recall that the Council does not have Chapter 7. The Council can only apply moral persuasion, political pressure and encourage dia-logue. So, unfortunately, some important stakeholders do not feel that the grave situation in Gaza, for instance, is as important as it should be.
Q : Human rights is a very vague concept. There is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then Economic and Social Rights, etc. How do you distinguish between them ?
Human rights are not vague. It is a complex ensemble of norms and principles. It is a very broad stream with many tributaries feeding into it. I personally believe that human rights did not start with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One could say, however, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first systematic effort by international humanity to make a coherent compilation of some fundamental conceptions and notions. It is very much a western, liberal document. But this does not distract from its relevance. It merely leaves some room for variation and interpretation in certain areas.
First, all cultures and religions, without exception, demand that the right of life and security, the right to property, freedom of conscience are respected, that human dignity is respected, that the integrity of the person is upheld — in particular, in Christianity, peace, love, etc. In Islam, it is tolerance, peace and respect for life. In the Koran it is written : « We created man as a dignified creature. » Man is the most dignified of all creatures, and Islam forbids the killing of the human person except under three well-defined conditions : in self-defence, in defence of your honour or of your property, and as a punishment for deliberate manslaughter while there is no forgiveness from the relatives of the victim. If one person is killed in a way that is not described in the Book, it’s as if you killed the whole of humanity.
Human rights did not start with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though there are some people who would like to think so. We are aware that there are some mainstream supporters, the seculars, who would like to see the concept of human rights outside the context of culture or religion. Yes, we recognize their intentions and they are basically good. But we can also see within all cultures that there are strong tributaries, strong streams of fundamental principles of culture and human rights for the individual : the sanctity of individuals ; their property ; their dignity, their freedom of conscience and belief, freedom of movement. There are other rights that are by implication of these fundamental rights and due process of law, etc. There are some reinterpretations of some rights in the socio-cultural and historical contexts, but these are limited ones — not very significant. This should not be an issue.
Of course, everything can be assumed to have a « human right » angle and this is true as long as the human being is at the centre of political activity. The concept of rights is complex. The principle of rights itself in legal and actual context is sometimes too broad, but the concept of human rights, I think, if we want to be fair and objective, is not vague — but is robust. There are recognized basic rights as contained in articles 1, 3 & 5 of the UDHR (1948) and there are other rights that stem from implications of the those rights.
Q : The Arab States proposed their own Declaration of Human Rights. What is all this about ?
Seven Arab States have initialled this document. Seven signatures were necessary for it to enter into force, and seven Arab States have indeed ratified it. So it entered into force in March 2008. Actually, it is more or less identical to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in many respects, with few minor modifications that take into account the specificities of the Arab socio-cultural context.
Otherwise, it is identical to all other international conventions and norms that outlaw torture and protect the individual, preserve the sanctity of the self, guarantee freedom of expression, freedom of worship, the right to food, the right to development, the right to life and security, the right of association, the right to expression, the right to form political parties. It’s almost 99% identical to the universal norms and principles of human rights.
Q : So why was it necessary to create it ? Even in the Universal Declaration and the Charter of the UN, regional arrangements are encouraged. Secondly, it’s important that States with a regional or cultural entity have their own documents so that national courts can take these rights into consideration. The High Commissioner encourages them.
Q : One ambassador once told me that that Arab States are less aware of human rights ?
On the contrary, we have well-established codes of honour that respect prisoners of war, the weak, women, children, etc. In our traditional culture, injustice, despotism, extrajudicial killing, etc. are forbidden. When the second Khalif Omar sent a Moslem army abroad from Aljazeera (the Arab Peninsula), he instructed them : not to kill non-combatants, not to kill women, not to cut a tree, not to attack religious persons or anybody unless they attack you, and not to hurt a prisoner — it is therefore strange to hear this statement.
Q : On a personal note, what is so exciting for you about human rights and the Human Rights Council ?
Those of us involved in diplomacy deal with so many different issues. But when we deal with human rights it touches upon individuals’ lives and the things that are important to the physical well being of people…their moral worth. Today, you have the privilege of defending people who you cannot see, but one day you or somebody close to you might be in that same situation. Human rights are vital to humanity, to world peace, to harmony and understanding among people…they are essential to stability and development in national societies. So work in this field is always a pleasure and a satisfaction. I have been to Darfur and I have seen the situation of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the refugee camps. Helping the helpless and involved in rectifying mistakes…redressing an injustice is politically and professionally rewarding and morally satisfying.
We can mention the experience of the Iraqis who fled to Jordan, who were in need of many things. You do not see one refugee camp in Jordan, because they live among the Jordanians. We do not even call them ’refugees’. The international community has provided some help, but it’s insufficient. As the High Commissioner for Refugees said, help from the international community is insignificant compared with the actual needs of those refugees. The Jordanians, the Syrians and other Arabs are accommodating them. This gives you a sense of satisfaction.
At the same time, there are diplomats who deal with actual situations, with mundane issues, who are sometimes in contact with conflicts and who have to act with passion and compassion, although not emotionally of course. We sometimes see the difference in international politics. We see people come and preach high and lofty noble ideals, but when it comes to reality, they adopt different stands because of the real politik, because of considerations of national interest. It can be quite comforting, especially when you see what has been done in favour of the disadvantaged-the disabled or indigenous people. But it can also be disturbing when you see that the international community fails to collectively act on some chronic questions.
Q : You are trying to do good, but the institution is blocking progress …
Well, we should not blame the institution, but the members. If you knock yourself against a wall, you do not blame the wall … the institution is merely an arena where its members act, so we should call a spade a spade. It is considerations of national priorities…politicisation, which lead to different yard-sticks being employed as in the case of the Middle East issues, for instance.
Q : How would you characterize the human rights situation in Jordan ?
We have a fairly good record of human rights in Jordan. Of course, no country is perfect. Otherwise there would not be a dynamic political system in any country. First, we have a culture of respect for fundamental freedoms established under King Abdullah II demonstrating the same open and caring spirit his deceased father late King Hussein had. There is in place the necessary institutions, legislations and policies. At the same time, we are living in a very difficult region. I’m not trying to find excuses. We have made some mistakes due mainly to the environment in which we live. Sometimes we may exagger-ate or act too cautiously in protecting people’s lives, which may impeach or infringe other’s rights. Sometimes you may unintentionally undermine or jeopardize people’s rights in certain areas like the right to have public association and assembly, or holding a person in custody for a prolonged period for public security considerations. We have had incidents like these, but these are very exceptional and when they occurred they were dealt with promptly and satisfactorily ; as there is a political will at the highest level to address these violations.
We have dealt with all these issues on the political level, in terms of legislation, in practice and even in terms of educating the people. So we have modified our laws to conform to international standards. We have established a national center for human rights institutions and we have very vibrant national human rights NGOs that monitor the situation in prisons, and issued reports about incidents of alleged torture therein, and the human rights situation in general. We respond very proactively to all reports that are published by the international media or NGOs. Most of the time they tell half-truths— their perspective is always from the angle of the glass half empty, rather than half full— but we try to make good use even of this. The authorities usually take the reports by international media and NGOs into consideration and act on the factual information therein.
In general, we have a satisfactory record, but we continue to improve it despite the fact that we are living in a very unstable region. Jordan has taken in a huge number of Iraqi refugees, but unfortunately the media are not paying attention to this. International media and NGOs register short-comings, mishaps or gaps only. Achievements and reforms usually do not attract attention.
Q : In your country, you have Petra and other historical sites going back thousands of years.
Our civilization goes back thousands of years and we have something from the Byzantine time, the Romans, the Aramaic … we have the site where Christ was baptized, which is on the eastern bank of the River Jordan. We have mosaics and churches, the oldest mosaic church in the world, etc. Our history goes back as much as 3,000 years. Jericho, which is the oldest known capital in the world, is only a few kilometres away to the west of where Christ was baptized.
So when people come to us and tell us : « No, you cannot speak about human rights, the rule of law, justice, etc. » — I do not agree. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good text ; we like it and we contributed to it. But, history did not start with the UDHR in 1948 or in 1776 with the American Bill of Rights, with the American Constitution or in 1789 with the French Revolution — or even with Magna Carta, which we recognize. All these texts are taught at our schools. We also have our own texts that are equally pertinent, and we are proud of them. The Quran is not only a Holy Book but it contains a marvellous bill of rights.
Q : Do you feel that people do not know about your rich heritage ?
Yes. But, perhaps, it’s partly our mistake. In the past, Orientalists came to the region to probe and study Arab & Islamic culture. But with this current culture of consumerism and fast food, people no longer have time to go back and read old manuscripts, unless they are like you, because you like to visit old places and learn from history. Jordan is rich in history, both modern and ancient. We would like people to come and visit Petra, Wadi Rum, bathe in the Dead Sea, but also see the rich history of mankind there ; or part of it.
Q : What should countries do ? Promote their cultural values better ?
I think that they should do more, spend more money on cultural exhibitions and focus more on showing the world what they have in terms of cultural treasures, the rich civilization, we have, modernity, in terms of progress and the respect of human rights. The heritage of the past — either it’s buried under the ground, or it’s in manuscripts or sculptures — can be found in museums and libraries around the world. I believe the UNESCO, WIPO and HRC should cooperate to develop the universal norms of human rights that are shared by all peoples, cultures and civilizations. History and culture can contribute significantly to building bridges among cultures.
Q : So are you encouraging your colleagues ?
I’m encouraging my countrymen, my fellow Arabs, to dig up their history and to show it to the world and to engage positively with the rest of the world on this issue. In this way, the world will know that our culture, our religion, our civilization does not promote hate or violence, but rather favours tolerance, respect of life, respect for the rights of others, dialogue, and coexistence.
Q : When the war against terrorism started following 9/11, do you feel that the Arabs have been victimized ?
I think that when 9/11 occurred the whole world was initially taken by surprise. Of course, the entire world was shocked and the majority sympathized with the American people. It was terrible. But as it evolved and a global war on terrorism doctrine was promulgated and implemented many things changed. America’s tragedy and pain has been made global. So did the mistakes that accompanied the war on terrorism. We did not understand—and we could not imagine—that somebody somewhere would be ready to use this terrible event in order to indict a whole nation and a whole religion. Nobody, expected that someone, especially in the West, where the rule of law usually prevails and where the principle that everybody is innocent until proved otherwise, hold supreme that people would hastily jump to indict a whole culture, a whole race, a religion or a nation. Unfortunately, what we see now is that somebody is using the mistakes of a few to penalize the entire Arab world…to accuse or criminalize a whole nation, a whole religion. This has now become an eye-opener to us. It has become a justification for stereotyping the Arabs, for attacking the Arabs and Moslems and to create animosity and aggravating tensions. Then of course there is the geostrategic package that has been wrapped into the whole enterprise of war on terrorism !!
Remember that the clash of civilizations was created in the West. I think what contributed to 9/11 was the book The clash of civilizations by Professor Huntington, whom I happen to have met at my stay at Harvard University Center for International Affairs. The theory of The clash of civilizations became very popular in the mid 1980s. You know this doctrine had preceded 9/11 more than a decade earlier and more or less in my personal opinion contributed to this catastrophic event in history. But people do not pay attention to that. People say 9/11 created the notion of clash of civilization. One can safely suggest that it is the other way around.
Q : Do you see a solution to this clash ?
First of all, I do not believe in a clash of civilizations per se and in pure cultural terms. I believe in every human endeavour there is an aspect of competition and this competition can be positive or negative. I think what we have is aggravated political competition on a strategic level. We have an encroachment on the Arab-Muslim domain, which was not met with the adequate and commensurate reaction from the official Arab system. I’m here criticizing the official Arab order ; the whole Arab political system did not respond appropriately to the challenges coming from the Eastern and Western circles in terms of encroachment on resources of the Arab World. Look at Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, etc. ; in all these places many among Arab populaces believe the official Arab reaction is inadequate. The reaction did not meet people’s expectations, i.e., facing the other side and telling them : « You are infringing our rights and our resources. » Then certain groups took it in their own hands ; they resorted to uncalculated and unauthorized-and sometimes-irresponsible acts (9/11) ; and they tried to cloak such irresponsible deeds with ill-conceived ideologies combined with frustration and they went to extreme. Thus, by Arab states you have had a weak reaction to the challenges which led or resulted in a popular reaction has taken a violent, unguided and counterproductive form. That is where the imbalance lies. There is no proper Arab or Muslim strategy towards the West ; I do not say Western colonialism, but it is rather close at least from the ordinary man’s point of view. It is a tragic situation. The Arab order was very nascent and fragile when the Cold War ended. It could not wither away the strategic pressures that have been applied against it since Iraq’s tragic occupation of Kuwait in 1990. What we are witnessing is the opening of Pandora’s box by the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 as King Abdullah II had warned against a few months prior to that date. This is hurting the Arab people. So I do not think there is a clash of civilizations, but rather a clash of interests due to competition — which is expected. But this clash of interests has not been managed properly — neither on the Arab side nor on the West’s side. Multiple geo-strategic, historical and cultural factors are intertwined and juxtaposed upon each other to produce the current malaise on the international scene and in the Middle East region specifically.
Q : Do you have a message for the international community ?
The international community is a loose term. Among the international community there are those who are fair. There are some who know the facts and do not buy the prevailing viewpoints in the media about the Arab and Moslem worlds. But at the same time in Geneva, I often sense some kind of bias and prejudice about Arab causes and misunderstandings about Arab culture — about the good things we have. I hope that the international community will not look at our region through a third party’s eyes, but will try to see for itself (visit and study) in order to appreciate the richness and hospitality of our culture.
I hope that Geneva and the Human Rights Council really will reconsider their views of the Arab and the Muslim world, and not look at it through the book by Professor Huntington or through the pro-Israeli media. I hope they will see who we really are, the generosity of our people, the rich culture we represent, and the just causes we are espousing.
I feel that that there is some kind of depreciation of the Arab world, and I hope that enlightened people will questions the things they have been hearing and seek to double check them. I also invite them to visit Jordan and in particular Petra, Jerash, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea.