Last month, I wrote about the remarkable events at the UN Human Rights Council, where Saudi Arabia attempted to shout down Josephine Macintosh, a representative of my employer the Center for Inquiry, as she delivered a forceful statement condemning Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, specifically the persecution and imprisonment of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abu al-Khair (who just this week was sentenced to 15 years in prison).
The Saudi representative was desperate to quiet her, demanding that the council president “shut that woman up!”, but delegations from the U.S., Ireland, Canada, and France stood up for Josephine’s right to deliver her statement. (You can read my full writeup here.)
I finally managed to actually make contact with the hero of the whole story, Josephine herself, who’s been busy traveling and without regular Internet access. I took the opportunity to ask her about the whole episode and to learn a little about what motivates her, too. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. I’ve emphasized some key portions.
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Paul Fidalgo: Josephine, how did you come to be involved with CFI and the Human Rights Council?
Josephine Macintosh: I started working as an intern, and subsequently became a representative, for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) two years ago. CFI and IHEU have been working together in Geneva, which led to my appointment to CFI as their representative at the UN this year. I do this in my spare time from work and university.
PF: What’s important to you personally about raising awareness of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, particularly in regard to Badawi and al-Khair?
JM: It is first and foremost a question of freedom of expression, a fundamental right that is integral to our lives as human beings. It is painful to see individuals having these rights abrogated, whatever their country of origin, background, physical condition.
I am deeply convinced that societies should allow for a plurality of voices and opinions to be voiced, whether people or a government agrees or disagrees with these. Badawi and al-Khair represent the minority that undertake the courageous step of speaking up and defending their fundamental rights despite dangerous consequences. We cannot have any kind of development without people like them doing what oppressive systems fear most: on-the-ground dissent. In a sense it is an expression of their dignity. It is important to keep their voices and actions heard within the hallowed halls of the UN.
Beyond the fact that it is contentious for it to maintain a position on the Human Rights Council, the fact that Saudi Arabia has a seat at the human rights table means it has also agreed to have its human rights record examined. For it to dare to censor within the council as it does on its own soil is unacceptable.
My time at the UN has inevitably made me feel disillusioned by the system in place that deals with these human right violations and it seems that these issues have visibility globally yet little action taken regarding them. But this is not a reason to quieten ourselves. I feel that my contribution, despite being small, does open a window of opportunity by raising awareness and we can still learn from these experiences to rethink our organizations fundamentally.
PF: Did you know before you gave your statement that Saudi Arabia would put up a fight? If so, did you prepare at all for that eventuality?
JM: No, I actually did not expect them to interrupt me and did not prepare for it. I spoke on Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system in March during the Saudi UPR [Universal Periodic Review] and was more concerned then but was not interrupted.
PF: How did the constant interruptions make you feel?
JM: The interruptions this time did not worry me too much as it is best to simply wait for the meeting’s chair (the Vice-President in this case) to make the decision. Additionally, I was aware that the statement was in line with the remit of the agenda item and, as can be seen in the recording of the event, the Saudi representative did not have a valid point of order in any of the three interruptions (this was highlighted by the U.S., Irish, French and Canadian representatives’ support). Luckily I did not feel shaken by the interruptions… It’s actually tedious stuff to be interrupted three times in the space of a two-minute speech! And ironically the interruptions backfired on Saudi Arabia as it meant the Council paid extra attention to what I was saying. I am however shocked to hear that the Saudi representative was so rude in Arabic (the interpreter toned it down), incredible that such expressions came out of the mouth of a UN diplomat.
PF: Did you expect the immediate backing from the representatives from the other countries? How did it feel to hear them speak up in support of you and CFI?
JM: I assumed some states might speak up as they sometimes do when points of orders are made and during attempts to silence NGOs [non-governmental organizations], but I was certainly not expecting such emphatic and widespread support. It was heart-warming to experience and I was particularly happy with the clear way they supported the statement by upholding the values the HRC is built on: freedom of expression and the important role NGOs play there.
PF: What kind of interactions, if any, have you had with the Saudi representatives before or after Monday’s meeting?
JM: I have not had any interactions with the Saudi representatives prior to or following the statement. They did not use the right to reply as was advised by the Vice-President (which in itself shows that they were only keen to stop the statement and not to address nor acknowledge its content). I delivered a statement for the Saudi UPR in March that called for the abolition of the male guardianship system in the country and it was replied to tangentially by the Ambassador during his right to reply address.
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After our initial conversation, I remembered to ask her something that had been weighing on many of our minds at CFI. After angering the Saudis, is Josephine safe? She assured me that indeed she is “completely safe” and is getting ready for law school.
And we’re lucky to have her. Never having met her in person, I’m proud to work alongside her both as part of CFI and as part of a wider movement for free expression.
My sincere thanks to Josephine to talking with me for this post, and for all she’s done and will do for the cause.