March 12, 2008

Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu
Secretary General
Organisation of the Islamic Conference
Jeddah
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Dear Dr. Ihsanoglu,

Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization that since 1978 has reported on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in more than 70 countries around the world.

We are writing to urge you to use your position as Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to support measures at the upcoming Summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Dakar, Senegal on March 13-14 that would improve and strengthen the 1999 OIC Convention on Combating International Terrorism.

The 1999 Convention makes clear that the OIC member states firmly reject terrorism, and it grounds that rejection in Islamic law. A preambular paragraph, for instance, states that “terrorism cannot be justified in any way, and that it should therefore be unambiguously condemned in all its forms and manifestations, and all its actions, means and practices, whatever the origin, causes or purposes, including direct or indirect actions of States.”

Human Rights Watch welcomes this provision and strongly supports efforts to fight the scourge of terrorism, whose many victims include citizens of OIC member states. Terrorism is the very antithesis of human rights. Whether during peacetime or wartime, international law prohibits deliberate attacks against civilians, whatever the circumstances. As you are aware, some perpetrators of attacks targeting civilians wrongly claim the mantle of Islam in justifying their actions. For this reason it would be important for the OIC, at its earliest opportunity, to clarify that its condemnation of terrorism makes no exemptions, even if in the name of causes that OIC member states endorse.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned by definitions of terrorism that are too broad – that label, or could easily be used to label, acts of peaceful expression, association and assembly as terrorist actions. We urge that OIC member states, in reiterating the OIC’s commitment to the struggle against terrorism, undertake to do so in a manner that is consistent with longstanding and universally recognized international human rights standards.

As such, during the upcoming summit we ask that the OIC consider two amendments to the 1999 OIC Convention on Combating International Terrorism in order to narrow its overbroad definition of terrorism, and to make absolutely clear that there is no sanction in Islam for deliberately attacking civilians, whatever the circumstances or justifications. Specifically:

  • The definition of terrorism in article 1 is overbroad. It covers any act or threat of violence carried out with the aim of, among other things, imperiling people’s honor, occupying or seizing public or private property, or threatening the stability, territorial integrity, political unity or sovereignty of a state. Not only is much of this language vague and ill-defined, it goes well beyond generally accepted understandings of the concept of terrorism. To remedy this overbreadth, the definition should be amended, consistent with statements by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, to cover only those acts committed with the intention of causing death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages.
  • A provision in article 2 appears to exempt from the Convention’s definition of terrorist crimes acts committed in “[p]eoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism, and hegemony, aimed at liberation and self-determination.” We urge the OIC to remove or amend this provision.

Human Rights Watch believes the changes suggested above would improve and strengthen the Convention, and assist in the very important fight against terrorism. In the spirit of openness we will be copying this letter to some of your senior colleagues in the OIC and releasing a copy on our website on March 12, 2007. We will follow the proceedings of the upcoming OIC Summit with great interest.

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director