Cyrus the Great on “freedom for all,” quoted at the UN in Geneva: “Your speaking time is over” — President, Human Rights Council
Comments by David G. Littman, NGO Representative to the United Nations, Geneva Association for World Education (AWE) and World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ)
My decision to return to the UN Human Rights Council on 24 March for a Parthian shot under the last item 10 was motivated by a wish to highlight key passages on human rights contained in the famous Cyrus the Great Cylinder of baked-clay in Akkadian with cuneiform script, dating from 539 BCE. It was excavated in 1879 by the Iraqi Christian archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam – a student of Sir Henry Layard – and since preserved in the British museum. I had tried to quote it earlier, but was cut off by the president and decided to make the ‘point’ a second time by quoting the Cyrus the Great ‘Human Rights’ Charter in comparison with the Khomeini the Great Islamic Republic of Iran Sharia Charter – and the item 10 situation in Afghanistan (then part of Cyrus’s empire). Once again I was stopped barely 16 seconds after the two minute time limit, whereas two NGOs: the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the International Committee for the Respect and Application of the African Charter of Human Rights and of Peoples were each allowed a full 3 minutes, and three other NGOs spoke for 2.44, 2.37 and just over 2Â½ minutes, respectively. I was so shocked at being silenced by the president within 4 seconds while the African speaker before me had been allowed to continue his very rhetorical statement for a full three minutes without being cut off, that I raised my voice and asked: Sir, will you cut Cyrus the Great?” This decision was all the more astonishing as the Cyrus quotation was clearly appreciated by many at the plenum meeting, who were listening attentively, and Belgium Ambassador Alex van Meeuwen is usually very generous, allowing NGOs (including me) to go well beyond their two minute time limit while never stopping Member or Observer States delegates some of whom go on indefinitely against all the rules.
I did not intend to explain that Cyrus is praised several times in the Bible, even in messianic terms, for allowing the Jews in Babylonia to return to Jerusalem: “Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus…” (Isaiah (44:28-45:1); in Ezra (1 and 6: 3-5); 2 Chronicles (36:23-249), as these details are to be found in our written statement on Iran: A/HRC/13/NGO/137. [HERE] http://daccess-dds- ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G10/119/24/PDF/G1011924.pdf?OpenElement
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The following joint statement was drafted and delivered by DGL for AWE and WUPJ.
Other statements made at the 13th session on other subjects will follow in due course.
ASSOCIATION FOR WORLD EDUCATION
WORLD UNION FOR PROGRESSIVE JUDAISM
United Nations Human Rights Council -13th session (1-26 March 2010)
Statement by David G. Littman – Wednesday (2:45 pm), 40th plenum 24 March 2010
President (Chair): Ambassador Alex Van Meeuwen (Belgium)
Item 10: Technical assistance and capacity-building:
[The words in brackets were not pronounced in the time available]
Sir, we have read carefully the comprehensive report of the High Commissioner on Afghanistan and noted the ghastly situation described under “women’s rights” and of “freedom of expression” – to name but two aspects. The Deputy High Commissioner repeated it in her introductory statement this morning and her declaration on efforts to develop accountable governance & the rule of law in Afghanistan are worth meditating.
Sir, this has been a long and tiring session and our archaeological meditations suddenly took flight, going back to a UN Human Rights event 40 years ago, which we would like to recall in this context [as a sort of Parthian shot], always, sir, with your indulgence.
In 1971, the United Nations translated the famous 2,500 [539 BCE] year-old clay Cylinder Seal of Cyrus the Great into all the official languages of the UN – and some even called it the First Charter of Human Rights. Thirty year later, Noble Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi evoked Cyrus and I wish to quote her pertinent words [10/12/03]
I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great. This emperor
proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that “he
would not reign over people if they did not wish it.” He promised
not to force any person to change his religion and faith and
guaranteed freedom for all. The Charter of Cyrus the Great should
be studied in the history of human rights.
Mr. President, I would like to read from that Charter to conclude. These are the words of Cyrus the Great, written 2550 years ago. [His huge empire included Afghanistan]:
I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the
nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates
look down on or insult them while I am alive. From now on (…) I will
impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and if any one
of them rejects it, I never resolve on war to reign. While I am king of Iran, Babylon, and the nations of four directions
[1st interruption by the president (after 2 minutes and 16 seconds):
"I thank you"- the speaker did not hear the gavel and continued]
I never let anyone oppress any other, and if it occurs, I will take his
[2nd interruption: "Your speaking time is over"- micro cut: 2 min. 20 sec.]
These lines could have been read within 45 secs. (total:3 mins.), the time allowed to the NGO who had just spoken before & another NGO
[or her right back and penalize the oppressor. And while I am monarch, I
will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed property of
the others by force or without compensation. While I am alive, I prevent
unpaid, forced labour. Today, I announce that everyone is free to choose
a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided
that they never violate other's rights. No one should be penalized for his or
her relatives' faults. I prevent slavery and my governors and subordinates
are obliged to prohibit exchanging men and women as slaves within their
own ruling domains. Such a tradition should be eliminated the world over...
[The words of Cyrus the Great should be heard today by all here, especially those
From his former empire (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and "in four directions") in
the hope that they will influence their leaders "to develop accountable governance
and the rule of law" under International Covenants they have signed and ratified.]
UPDATE from DAVID LITTMAN:
Mea culpa – with regrets. In preparing hastily my oral statement for the UN Human Rights Council, I first learned about the 1971 translation of the Cyrus the Great clay-cylinder into the six official UN languages and the copy in New York – and also saw the quote by Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi on Cyrus in the Wikipedia article. Then, unwittingly, I used an erroneous translation of the famous Cyrus Cylinder that popped up on the internet -instead of checking it with the translation in Prof. James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts (1955, pp. 315-16) in my own library. There is no doubt that Cyrus was a remarkable leader and conqueror, who created the largest empire in antiquity and left for posterity an envied reputation of magnanimity. He is greatly praised in the Bible for letting the enslaved Jews to return to Jerusalem in 538 BCE to rebuild the Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians. Three months ago two cuneiform tablet fragments were discovered in the British Museum collections , bearing inscriptions similar to those of the Cyrus cylinder. Perhaps they will yield more secrets on this subject. Yet, here are some positive words to be found in the clay-Cylinder: “My numerous troops walked around Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize (any place) of the [country of Sumur] and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his (other) sacred cities…. [I abolished] the yoke which was against their social standing. I brought relief to their dilapidated housing, putting (thus) an end to their (main) complaints.”Â Â