Fight Looms Over ‘Religious Defamation’ Measure at the United Nations

By Patrick Goodenough | October 19, 2010 | 6:41 AM EDT

The 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is spearheading the “defamation of religion” campaign at the U.N.

( – Supporters and opponents of the annual United Nations’ “defamation of religion” resolution are gearing up for what may be the biggest battle yet, with Islamic states roused by recent controversies in the U.S. and critics energized by growing awareness about blasphemy laws.

This December, for the sixth consecutive year, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) will vote on a resolution presented by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) (Islamic bloc), calling on governments to act against “religious defamation.”

Similar resolutions have also been passed each year by the U.N.’s main human rights body since 1999.

In both the UNGA and the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, the resolutions have drawn declining support in recent years, to the OIC’s dismay.

Last December’s UNGA vote passed by 80-61, with 42 countries abstaining. The 19 votes separating the “yes” and “no” positions were the smallest number yet; margins in the four previous years’ votes had ranged from 33 to 57.

The number of countries moving into the “no” column has been quite small – only seven over the five-year period. Most of the difference has been the result of non-Muslim developing countries shifting from supporting the measure, to abstaining.

Opponents of the resolution, including religious freedom, freedom of expression, legal and humanist advocacy groups, anticipate that the trend will continue until the OIC measure fails altogether.

For its part, the OIC is hoping that incidents over the past year, especially the Quran-burning and “Ground Zero mosque” episodes in the U.S. and the Swiss ban on the building of minarets, will help to reverse the tide.

OIC culture and information ministers met in Senegal last week to discuss what they said was a “growing trend of Islamophobia.”

The meeting ended with a call on the world’s governments “to take effective measures to combat the defamation of religions and negative stereotyping of people on the basis of religion, faith or race.”

A meeting of OIC foreign ministers in New York several weeks earlier also tackled the issue.

“We strongly believe that defamation of Islam geared towards denigrating and dehumanizing Muslims, their beliefs and sacred personalities, insults the deep-seated religious feelings, undermines their dignity and violates their fundamental human rights thus threatening the multicultural fabric of the societies,” they said in a statement.

“We … call upon the international community to make concrete measure with a view to fostering an environment of respect for all religions.”

‘Resolutions punish the peaceful criticism of ideas’

Although the OIC resolutions purport to cover all religions, only Islam and Muslims are cited by name. Last year’s text expressed concern that “Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism” and referred also to the “ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities.”

Although the resolutions themselves are non-binding, they provide the OIC with ammunition for its attempt to amend an existing – and legally-binding – anti-racism text, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to incorporate religion.

This year’s resolution faces two votes in the coming weeks – one by a UNGA committee in November, followed by a full UNGA vote in December.

Christian ministries working among persecuted religious minorities are stepping up their lobbying of governments that have voted for the resolution or abstained in the past, and are calling for public support.

Open Doors USA has launched an advocacy campaign, urging Christians to lobby their lawmakers to contact the U.N. missions of target countries about the resolution.

The organization said that target countries would not be easily influenced by American citizens, but would be “more receptive to pressure from our legislators.”

“It’s dangerous and alarming that a U.N. resolution provides legitimacy to national blasphemy laws that are used to persecute Christians and other minority faith groups,” said the group’s advocacy director, Lindsay Vessey.

“We as Christians need to speak out against it and do all in our power to stop its passage. Everyone should be free to believe.”

Christian Freedom International (CFI) is also urging people to contact members of Congress on the resolution, which it says will only advance the persecution of religious minorities, especially Christians.

“Under existing ‘blasphemy’ laws in Muslim-majority nations, many people are routinely arrested and imprisoned for the crimes of insulting or denigrating Islam,” the Michigan-based group said in a statement.

Opposition to the resolution goes well beyond Christian groups.

More than 100 non-governmental organizations from a number of countries – human rights, legal, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, humanist and others – have put their names to a common statement opposing the resolutions.

“Unlike traditional defamation laws, which punish false statements of fact that harm individual persons, measures prohibiting the ‘defamation of religions’ punish the peaceful criticism of ideas,” it states.

Meanwhile, Freedom House will on Thursday release a key report on the impact of “defamation of religion” laws on free expression. The Washington-based democracy watchdog says that seven case studies show that blasphemy laws “are often unevenly applied, contribute to violence, and lead to self-censorship.”

Countries to target

Among countries that voted for the OIC-drafted resolution last year and may be persuaded to change their stance this time are the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Namibia, Swaziland, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Past abstainers that could be urged to vote against the measure in 2010 include Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Bahamas, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Fiji, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Mongolia, Nepal, Paraguay, Peru, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu and Zambia.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow