United Nations Criticized for Sex Discrimination Against Males

The intactivist movement was represented for the first time this year at the three-week-long 52nd annual meeting of the United Nations' Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights ("Sub-Commission"). Acting pursuant to the UN Roster status of NOCIRC, and with assistance from team members Tina Kimmel and Ken Drabik who each worked with me on site for part of the session, I traveled to Geneva to work with the Sub-Commission. We arranged and attended personal meetings with a number of Sub-Commissioners and I presented each of the 26 Sub-Commissioners with a range of donated material including a videotape and a CD-ROM depicting a circumcision, books, and Jacqueline Smith's article about circumcision as a human rights violation. Thank you to all the folks who helped make this possible through cash or in-kind donations that supported the project. Special thanks to Dan Stranjord and Lawrence Barichello for the videotapes (and to Ken Drabik for transporting them), to Lawrence and Geoffrey Falk for the CD's, and to Tina Kimmel for the books.

On August 9, 2001, I presented a written "intervention" or petition to the Sub-Commission. On August 14, 2001, I gave an oral address to a session of the Sub-Commission. Present in the audience, along with the Sub-Commissioners, were a number of governmental mission members, representatives of inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, and credentialed observers. Both the written and oral "interventions" will become part of the UN's official records and at least in theory will be reviewed and considered by each Sub-Commissioner. (The text of my oral "intervention" appears at the end of this report.) While a wide range of protections have been instituted by the UN to help stop female genital mutilation, male circumcision has never been addressed by any UN body, including the Sub-Commission. This is true despite the fact that Sub-Commissioners, in written reports, have themselves advised the Sub-Commission that sex discrimination against males violates international law.

Initially we had some very interesting meetings with several Sub-Commissioners. Apart from Mrs. Warzazi, as discussed in the next paragraph, the Sub-Commissioners who did actually meet with us were very receptive. Some of them indicated their support of our work but none of them seemed inclined to pursue the issue further within the Sub-Commission.

I asked in both my oral and written interventions that the Sub-Commission restore the mandate of Sub-Commissioner Mrs. Halima Embarek Warzazi, its Special Rapporteur on Traditional Practices Affecting Women and the Girl Child (formerly "Women and Children"), to again encompass practices affecting male children. Four years ago, in an apparent violation of the Sub-Commission's normal procedural rules, the reduction of Mrs. Warzazi's mandate was effected without official pronouncement or substantive discussion of the reasons for the change. In Geneva, Mrs. Warzazi met with us but soon became quite confrontational. She suggested that our position was based on the fact that we are not Muslims or Jews. When we responded by noting that many members of these religions are involved in the movement against circumcision (including one who was present in Geneva, Tina Kimmel), Mrs. Warzazi then claimed that it would violate her religion even to discuss with us the issue of male circumcision. We were able to give her a copy of Jacqueline Smith's human rights article before she abruptly ended the meeting.

Already the UN has recognized that circumcision can under certain circumstances constitute a human rights violation, and we were, among other things, seeking to obtain a general statement to that effect. The United Nations bureaucracy and the Sub-Commission members and employees always treated us with respect. But clearly they talked among themselves and learned what our issue was. Evidently they were not—with some exceptions—seriously considering our claims. Eventually Sub-Commissioners and their staff members started to regularly avoid scheduled meetings with us, without canceling the meetings or contacting us in any way, not even in response to our follow-up contacts.

Here is the press release we issued and FaxNet helped distribute on August 15, 2001 regarding our work:

Attorneys for the Rights of the Child 2961 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705...
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 15, 2001 CONTACT: J. Steven Svoboda, Esq....
Attention: Health Editor

United Nations Criticized for Sex Discrimination Against Males

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND—The United Nations and its Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights were sharply criticized yesterday by two human rights organizations for discrimination against males in the enforcement of human rights. Speaking on behalf of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers and Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, J. Steven Svoboda, Esq., a Harvard-educated human rights lawyer, noted that while a panoply of protections for women and girls has been instituted including aggressive programs to stop female genital mutilation (FGM), male circumcision has never even been studied by any United Nations body including the Sub-Commission.

Svoboda demanded that the Sub-Commission explain why Sub-Commissioner Mrs. Halima Embarek Warzazi, previously its Special Rapporteur on Traditional Practices Affecting Women and Children, was now barred from considering traditional practices' effects on male children.

Svoboda commented that everywhere that FGM occurs, male circumcision also takes place, adding that male circumcision takes place six times for every time FGM occurs. "Some day," Svoboda told the United Nations, "we will come to understand the misguided nature of our attempts to explain why any violation of female genitals is criminal while a comparable, serious, extremely painful, and disfiguring alteration of male genitals is permissible. 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. "

Svoboda called the United Nations' attention to the fact that the Parliament of Sweden recently voted decisively, 249 to 10, in favor of 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.

Svoboda commented that human rights professor Jacqueline Smith of the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights has also emphasized the importance of protecting males as well as females from circumcision. Svoboda also reminded the Sub-Commission that Ms. Gay J. McDougall, its own expert on systematic rape and sexual slavery, stressed that human rights must protect both males and females from all forms of sexual assault.

Svoboda called the Sub-Commission's attention to the disfigured genitals and deaths which are regularly caused by male circumcision wherever it is practiced, in the United States, in the developing world, or elsewhere. He recounted the story of David Reimer, whose penis was entirely burned off, as has since been documented on television and in a best-selling book. Reimer was raised and surgically "reassigned" as a girl but his life and the lives of everyone in his family were catastrophically altered. Svoboda quoted an August 1 article in the New York Times reporting that 35 boys 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."

Svoboda testified that every single national medical association that has examined the issue has failed to find medical benefits which can justify routine removal of healthy tissue from a non-consenting infant. Regarding religion, Svoboda stated that 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.


During my time in Geneva, I also arranged meetings with representatives of NGO's from such diverse countries as the United States, Lesotho, and Bolivia. The NGO representatives with whom I spoke tended to support our work but were reluctant to participate directly given their organizations' focus on other issues. Given the recent passage of a Swedish law regulating circumcision, I worked very closely with Swedish representatives in both Geneva and Stockholm, including several Swedish legislators who were very influential in the floor debate over the new Swedish law, and I also met with representatives of the Swedish mission to the United Nations. In preparation for the "interventions," I performed extensive research regarding human rights aspects of male and female genital mutilation at the United Nations and the World Health Organization. I also met with reporter Jonathan Rapoport, who provided some useful Swedish contacts, and with representatives of the International Service for Human Rights.

Thanks again to everyone who helped make this effort possible and particularly to Marilyn Milos of NOCIRC whose permission for us to proceed under NOCIRC's Roster status made the venture possible. Plans are already being prepared for a return engagement next year, probably in concert with representatives of other credentialed organizations. The Sub-Commission will see that male circumcision is an issue that must be addressed.

J. Steven Svoboda
Executive Director
Attorneys for the Rights of the Child


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