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UN Passes Islamic ‘Defamation’ Measure, But Critics Hail ‘Backlash’
Over the past year opponents ranging to media watchdogs and free speech advocates to Christian and humanist groups have stepped up lobbying against the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)-driven campaign.
Thursday’s vote passed by a margin of 86-53, with 42 countries abstaining. The result showed a significant erosion of support since a similar resolution passed in the General Assembly last December by a vote of 108-51, with 25 abstentions.
For the first time, the number of countries supporting the resolution fell behind the number of those voting against or abstaining.
“Although it is disappointing that religious freedom takes another step backwards today, we are extremely encouraged that the majority of countries in the world did not vote in favor of banning peaceful religious speech,” said Angela C. Wu, the international law director at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Washington-based public interest law firm viewed the shift in support for the resolution among U.N. member states as “a significant backlash.”
The Becket Fund earlier made a submission to the world body arguing that any attempt to treat religious discrimination in the same way as racial discrimination could result in “the suppression of peaceful, but controversial, discussions of truth claims about and within religions.”
The Becket Fund, and other critics of the OIC push, note that in some of the Islamic countries leading the campaign – notably Pakistan, Egypt and Iran – blasphemy laws target those who challenge the religious viewpoints approved by the state. Some also outlaw conversions from Islam to other faiths.
To these critics, outlawing “religious defamation” at the U.N. would not only legitimize those regimes’ behavior but could lead eventually to similar restrictions on free expression in non-Islamic countries as well.
“The ‘defamation of religions’ resolution is a direct violation of the United Nation’s mandate to protect religious freedom, as peaceful religious speech – a manifestation of belief – will be silenced as a result of it,” Wu said.
“We are deeply disappointed that the U.N. has given cover to oppressive governments to persecute dissenters. Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Christians in Orissa, India, and Bahais in Iran have one more reason to fear for their lives as the U.N. lends legitimacy to the criminalization of their peaceful speech. States have no place determining what is and is not blasphemy,” she added.
“Defenders of free speech take some consolation in the increased votes for our cause,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of the human rights watchdog UN Watch, said Thursday. “But the adoption of yet another totalitarian text is a stark reminder that human rights at the U.N. is under assault.”
He also noted that Islamic states were using a major U.N. conference on racism, scheduled for next spring, to advance their campaign. Proponents are arguing that the “defamation” of Islam and “Islamophobia” are contemporary forms of racism, and should thus fall under purview of the racism conference, commonly known as Durban II.
“The most dire threat is coming from Geneva where a Durban II committee headed by Algeria has this week been seeking to amend international human rights treaty law to ban ‘defamation of religion,’ especially Islam,” Neuer said.
“Eleanor Roosevelt, whose universal declaration we celebrate this month, must be turning in her grave.”
The shift in voting from last year to this came primarily from 16 developing countries which voted in favor in 2007 but chose to abstain on Thursday. Two of them, Benin and Burkina Faso, are OIC members. (The others are Central African Republic, Congo, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, East Timor, Grenada, Haiti, Mauritius, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uruguay, Vanuatu and Zambia.)
Three countries which voted in favor in 2007 – Belize, Cape Verde and Liberia – moved to opposing the resolution this year. And one country, OIC member Nigeria, abstained last year but voted in favor this year. Absences accounted for the remaining differences between the 2007 and 2008 votes.
The resolution passed Thursday is the latest in a string of similar ones stretching back almost a decade, both at the General Assembly and at the U.N.’s Geneva-based Human Rights Council (and its predecessor, the erstwhile Commission on Human Rights.)
The U.S.-led fight against Islamist terror launched after 9/11 lent further impetus to the campaign, as Islamic governments and organizations complained that Muslims were facing discrimination and being unfairly targeted.
Early this week opponents of the OIC project received a boost when four international freedom of expression experts jointly came out against attempts to legislate against the “defamation” of religion.
While opposition up to now has come largely from non-governmental organizations and some Western governments, the joint statement came from experts representing the U.N. as well as African, Latin American and European nations.
“The concept of ‘defamation of religions’ does not accord with international standards regarding defamation, which refer to the protection of reputation of individuals,” the experts said in a statement.
“Religions, like all beliefs, cannot be said to have a reputation of their own" and cannot therefore be defamed.
The statement called on international bodies, including the General Assembly and Human Rights Council, to “desist from the further adoption of statements supporting the idea of ‘defamation of religion.’”
In other recommendations, the experts said blasphemy laws and others restricting criticism of ideas and beliefs should be repealed; and hate speech laws should be limited to covering the advocacy of views constituting incitement to discrimination and violence.
The four experts were Frank La Rue, the Human Rights Council’s investigator for freedom of expression; Miklos Haraszti of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; Catalina Botero of the Organization of American States; and Faith Pansy Tlakula of the African Union.