Religious ‘Defamation’ on Agenda at UN Rights Session

In International Advocacy Program by

( – The United Nations’ Human Rights Council kicks off a new session in Geneva on Monday, and a controversial push by Islamic states to outlaw religious “defamation” is high on the agenda.

In recent months, debate has swirled over efforts to limit freedom of expression in the context of religious discussion. That debate is now moving beyond a small group of concerned non-governmental and legal organizations to a wider audience.

The drive is spearheaded by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which has already succeeded in getting several resolutions on the issue passed, both at the U.N.’s human rights watchdog and at the General Assembly. Now it is pressing for more resolutions, including one at the General Assembly’s annual session in New York, which begins next Tuesday.

More than 84,000 signatories have endorsed a petition opposing the new resolution organized by the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice.

During the Geneva Human Rights Council session, which runs from Sept. 8-26, the 47-member HRC will hear a report on the subject, compiled by a special investigator mandated to probe “contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Critics of the OIC campaign say existing human rights instruments adequately protect individuals from incitement to violence based on religion, and they argue that a religion cannot be defamed.

They say the Islamic states promote the idea of religious defamation because international law recognizes that freedom of expression may be limited to protect reputations.

What the OIC actually is opposing is a range of social phenomena to which its objects.

According to a study drawn up by the U.N.’s new high commissioner for human rights ahead of the HRC session, these include “stereotyping and negative portrayal of religions, in particular Islam, [and] the association of Islam with violence and terrorism” after 9/11, as well as “ridicule,” “insults” and “Islamophobia.”

(Examples cited in OIC documents include newspaper cartoons caricaturing Mohammed, and a Dutch lawmaker’s documentary released earlier this year, linking the Koran to terrorism.)

The new commissioner – South African jurist Navanethem Pillay, who began her four-year term on Sept. 1 – was asked in an earlier resolution to compile a study on existing relevant legislation and submit it to this month’s council session.

Pillay concluded the document by saying clarity was needed over where the line should be drawn between freedom of expression and incitement to religious hatred.

She therefore is convening a two-day consultation by legal experts next month looking at links between articles in international human rights treaties that deal with freedom of expression and those that prohibits incitement to violence based on religion.

Some NGOs also have submitted papers ahead of the HRC session, spelling out opposition to the Islamic bloc’s drive to outlaw religious “defamation.”

In one joint submission, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, an Arab organization, and Article 19, a free speech advocacy group, argued that religions cannot be said to have a reputation of their own, and thus cannot be “defamed.”

Noting that OIC resolution texts claim that respect for religions is essential for the exercise of religious freedom, they disputed this.

“It is perfectly possible to disagree, even vehemently, with a particular religious tenet, while respecting the right of others to believe it,” they said. “Indeed, such disagreement is inherent in the conflicting beliefs of different religions.”

A key criticism of the defamation of religion push is that Islamic governments are trying to enshrine in international law elements of controversial blasphemy legislation in place in their own countries, which most often target non-Muslim minorities or apostates from Islam.

“Blasphemy laws in many countries are used to prevent any criticism of religions, religious leaders and religious institutions, in clear breach of international guarantees of freedom of expression,” said the Cairo Institute and Article 19.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society in Britain, warned that if the OIC proposals gain legal credence, they will lead to prosecutions for blasphemy around the world and “the Islamist desire to stop all open discussion of Islam will have been achieved.”

‘Contemporary challenges’

This year the U.N. marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted on Dec. 10, 1948.

In another submission to the HRC, three NGOs – the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the Association for World Education and the Association of World Citizens – said it was now critical to stress the need for, and discuss threats to, the agreed universal standards contained in the landmark declaration.

They reiterated long-held concerns about a document adopted by OIC member states in 1990, the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which says all human rights and freedoms must be subject to Islamic law (shari’a).

On the 59th anniversary of the UDHR, last December, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N. said in a statement on behalf of the OIC that the bloc was busy drawing up a new Islamic Charter on Human Rights, in accordance with the provisions of the Cairo Declaration.

The envoy, Masood Khan, claimed the Cairo Declaration was “not an alternative, competing worldview on human rights” but “complements” the UDHR “as it addresses religious and cultural specificity of the Muslim countries.”

Khan also said the UDHR was a “living” document that should take into account “contemporary challenges.” He listed among these “the rising tide of defamation of religions and Islamophobia,” “attempts to equate Islam with terrorism” and “stereotyping and demonization of Muslims.”

A major OIC report released at a summit in Senegal last March called for “a binding legal instrument to fight the menace of Islamophobia in the context of freedom of religion and elimination of religious intolerance.”

“The Islamophobes remain free to carry on their assaults due to absence of legal measures necessary for misusing or abusing the right to freedom of expression,” the report said, urging Islamic states to keep “the pressure on the international community at the multilateral forums and bilateral agendas.”

Founded in 1969, the OIC is made up of 56 predominantly Islamic countries mostly in North Africa and Asia, but also with one each from Latin America (Guyana) and Europe (Albania). The Bush administration early this year for the first time appointed a U.S. envoy to the bloc, which has its headquarters in Saudi Arabia.

* By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor

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