UN Human Rights Commission Oral Arguments
United Nations Human Rights Commission
Sub-Commission on Promotion and
Geneva, Switzerland Development of Human Rights
Tuesday, 14 August 2001
The National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, a non-governmental organization in Roster status with the United Nations, has requested the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to conduct hearings to determine if involuntary non-therapeutic circumcision of male minor children should be considered a human rights violation.This file contains the oral arguments by J. Steven Svoboda, JD, Esq, Director, Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, before the fifty-third session of the Sub-Commission on Promotion and Development of Human Rights, United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 14 August 2001.
The current era is an exciting time for human rights. We are pleased to see a panoply of protections being extended to women and girls to assist them in overcoming all the various systemic and individual burdens which tend to fall on females around the world. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the experts, the governments, the inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations in this room, serious headway is being made in the elimination of a number of different forms of discrimination and violence against women. Special Rapporteur Mrs. Warzazi deserves our special commendation for her considerable achievements in this area.
One of the many problems affecting girls and women on which significant progress has been made is the fight against female genital mutilation. NOCIRC works toward elimination of FGM and is elated at progress and developments in this area. Yet are we forgetting anyone? Are we turning away from certain human wrongs?
Everywhere that FGM occurs, male circumcision also occurs. Elimination of one practice may go hand-in-hand with elimination of the other. Male circumcision takes place more than six times for every one time that FGM occurs. Male circumcision occurs at infancy in the developed world while in the developing world it takes place any time between infancy and early adulthood.
The Parliament of Sweden recently voted decisively, 249 to 10, in favor of Law 2001:499, new legislation which regulates male circumcision and in its preliminaries also ordered a study to determine what effect the new law will have and whether male circumcision should be considered a human rights violation. Many Swedish Members of Parliament stated that male circumcision violates children's rights. The 10 dissenters in the Swedish vote objected only because they supported total criminalization, rather than mere regulation, of non-therapeutic circumcision of male children.
If one had just arrived in Geneva from another planet and spent time reviewing all the work done here, one might be forgiven for wondering: Are males not also human beings? Do they not also enjoy the right against removal of healthy tissue from their bodies without their consent?
Yes, according to Jacqueline Smith of the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, "By condemning one practice and not the other, another basic human right, namely the right to freedom from discrimination, is at stake."
Yes, according to Ms. Gay J. McDougall, the Sub-Commission's Special Rapporteur on Systematic Rape, Sexual Slavery and Slavery-like Practices During Armed Conflict. Ms. McDougall stated: "That international humanitarian law, insofar as it provides protection against rape and other sexual assaults, is applicable to men as well as women is beyond any doubt as the international human right not to be discriminated against (in this case on the basis of sex) does not allow derogation.
Article 13 of the United Nations Charter, as well as Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child bar discrimination on the basis of sex. United Nations experts have acknowledged that at least under certain circumstances male circumcision constitutes a human rights violation.
If males are included in human rights, then why have they been eliminated from the mandate given to Special Rapporteur Warzazi, which previously encompassed traditional practices harmful to women and children but now only includes traditional practices harmful to women and the girl child? Smith writes, "Male circumcision is, like female genital mutilation, a 'harmful traditional practice' and as such in violation with the rights of the child. Regardless of whether a child is a boy or a girl, neither should be subject to a tradition which is harmful."
It may be tempting to dismiss the issue as trivial. Our own discomfort and reluctance to open up a new area of human rights inquiry can combine to encourage attempts to write the matter off as unimportant. But nothing could be further than trivial for David Reimer, whose penis was entirely burned off. He was raised and surgically "reassigned" as a girl but his life and the lives of everyone in his family were catastrophically altered. Nothing could be further than trivial for Demetrius Manker of Carol City, Florida, one of the many boys who die in hospital after a circumcision. And nothing could be further than trivial for the 35 boys who according to the New York Times have already died this year in South Africa alone from circumcisions. Ten percent or more of initiates have been left with no penis or a "disfigured stump."
The pain has been proven conclusively, and cannot be prevented even with anesthetic, which carries its own risks. Male circumcision harms infant neurological development and memory, has permanent impacts on sexuality and as mentioned, deaths occur regularly. Male circumcision harms women by impairing bonding between the child and the mother and by interfering with breastfeeding.
Do medical benefits exist which justify routine circumcision? No, according to the American Medical Association. No, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. No, according to the American Cancer Society. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists searched for but could locate no such benefits, nor could the American Urological Association, the British Medical Association, the Australian Association of Paediatric Surgeons, the Australian College of Paediatrics, the Canadian Paediatric Society, or the United Kingdom's General Medical Council. Every single national medical association which has examined the issue has failed to find medical benefits which can justify routine removal of healthy tissue from a non-consenting infant.
What about religion? For boys and girls alike, under basic human rights principles, another's right to practice a religion must end where that individual's body begins. Otherwise, individual protections carry little meaning. Many Jews and Muslims are involved with NGO's working to stop male circumcision, and many are questioning whether removal of healthy tissue from the bodies of their children is required by or even consistent with their faith.
One of the Sub-Commission's prime functions is to undertake studies, particularly in the light of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to make recommendations to the Commission concerning the prevention of discrimination OF ANY KIND relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms. In accordance with Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, "All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law." NOCIRC respectfully requests the Sub-Commission to immediately undertake a study of male circumcision as a human rights violation.
The best way to do justice to the rights of the child is to do no harm, to let it enjoy life in every aspect and to protect it and to love it. When the child is of the age of consent, he or she can make up his or her own mind about his or her own body. Some day, we will come to understand the misguided nature of our attempts to explain why any violation of female genitals is criminal while a serious, extremely painful, and disfiguring alteration of male genitals is permissible. In the meantime, the screaming babies can't tell the difference. All we need to is open our ears and start to hear their cries.