Intactivist Progress at the United Nations in Gaining Recognition of Male Infant Circumcision as a Human Rights Violation

As I learned in detail at the recent Keele conference, Antony Lempert of the Secular Medical Forum (SMF) has been instrumental in some exciting developments that have taken place over the past year or so involving intactivism, human rights, and the United Nations. Antony kindly provided ARC with a brief report on these activities, which I adapted for this message. Antony has also graciously agreed to expand in detail on this heartening news in the next issue of the ARC Newsletter.

To provide some historical perspective, in August 2001, working under the much appreciated auspices of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), ARC organized a team that travelled to Geneva and for the first time, placed male circumcision in official UN records as a central human rights concern (http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/alldocs.aspx?doc_id=7400, first link).

Last year, the SMF and cooperating organizations picked up the baton. On September 17, 2012, during the 21st session of the UN Human Rights Council, a statement about the harms of ritual circumcision was read out in the chamber by a representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). The IHEU statement relied heavily on information from the SMF and the UK National Secular Society (NSS). On October 4, 2012, Antony, Keith Porteous-Wood of the UK-based National Secular Society (www.secularism.org.uk) and Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (www.iheu.org) accepted an invitation to meet for an hour in Geneva with the chair and vice-chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to discuss ritual male circumcision. In a later informal meeting, they met with the Norwegian representative of the UNCRC, Ms Kirsten Sandberg, who has since assumed the chair of the committee.

During each of three annual sessions, the UNCRC examines the compliance of 4-5 signatory nations to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRoC). Accordingly, each UNCRoC signatory nation is scrutinized for UNCRoC compliance on a rolling five year program. The UNCRC welcomes relevant, short submissions from all sources to inform their deliberations. Israel was reviewed by the UNCRC in May/June 2013. Reports had been submitted by the SMF, and by the Israeli organisation Ben Shalem. The UNCRC report on Israel, published July 4, 2013 (http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/docs/co/CRC-C-ISR-CO-2-4.pdf, paragraphs 41 and 42), included non-therapeutic circumcision under the heading "harmful practices’"and recommended that Israel monitor the short and long-term complications of the procedure.

Another sign I was pleased to observe of the increasing openness of human rights organizations to intactivist views is the discussion of male circumcision in the 2012 report from the International NGO Council on Violence Against Children titled, “Violating Children’s Rights: Harmful practices based on tradition, culture, religion, or superstition.” (https://www.crin.org/docs/InCo_Report_15Oct.pdf) . Here are some extracts from page 22 of the report (citations omitted):

Until recently, male circumcision has generally been challenged only when carried out by non-medical personal [sic] in unhygienic settings without pain relief. But a children’s rights analysis suggests that non-consensual, non-therapeutic circumcision of boys, whatever the circumstances, constitutes a gross violation of their rights, including the right to physical integrity, to freedom of thought and religion and to protection from physical and mental violence. When extreme complications arise, it may violate the right to life. It is reported that male circumcision can result in numerous physical, psychological, and sexual health problems during the surgery, afterwards, and throughout adulthood, including haemorrhage, panic attacks, erectile dysfunction, infection (in severe forms leading to partial or complete loss of the penis), urinary infections, necrosis, permanent injury or loss of the glans, excessive penile skin loss, external deformity, and in some cases even death.

The WHO review quoted three randomized controlled trials suggesting that circumcision reduces the risk of acquiring HIV infection in males. But this potential health benefit does not over-ride a child’s right to give informed consent to the practice. The decision to undertake circumcision for these reasons can be deferred to a time where the risk is relevant and the child is old enough to choose and consent for himself.

These are heady times. A thank you from the bottom of my heart to the countless people, known and unknown, who have worked so hard to help bring into reality these recent events.

You can support ARC's work by going to http://arclaw.org/donate.

Steven Svoboda
Attorneys for the Rights of the Child

 

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