NGOs Take Aim at ‘Religious Defamation,’ Urge Competitive U.N. Council Elections

By Patrick Goodenough | March 26, 2009 | 4:18 AM EDT

The U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva. (U.N. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

( – On the eve of yet another United Nations vote on a “defamation of religion” resolution Thursday, a broad range of human rights, press freedom, religious and secularist organizations urged the world body’s Human Rights Council to reject the measure.
Given the makeup of the council – more than half the 47 seats are reserved for African and Asian nations, and Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) members currently hold one-third of the total – the likelihood of the OIC-promoted resolution failing appeared slim.
Still, opponents hope that an apparent trend of dwindling support seen in recent years will continue.
The 2007 HRC vote was 24-9, with 14 abstentions; in 2008 the resolution was passed by 21-10, again with 14 members abstaining. Meanwhile defamation of religion resolutions in the 192-member General Assembly have followed a similar track – the 2007 vote was 108-51, with 25 abstentions; the 2008 resolution passed 86-53, with 42 countries abstaining.
In both the council and General Assembly, the 2008 votes for the first time recorded a larger number of countries opposing or abstaining than those supporting the resolution.
This week’s vote comes towards the end of a month-long HRC session in Geneva, to which the United States returned as an active observer. The Bush administration withdrew last year in response to what it called the council’s “pathetic record.” The U.S. is now widely expected to stand for a council seat in elections in May.
In its draft 2009 resolution, introduced by Pakistan, the OIC says governments should “effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular.”
As examples of the problem, it cites attempts to associate Islam with “human rights violations and terrorism,” discrimination faced by Muslims since 9/11, including “in the context of the fight against terrorism,” as well as “deliberate stereotyping of religions, their adherents and sacred persons in the media.”
The resolution also expresses dismay about “the inaction of some states to combat this burgeoning trend.”
Although the OIC campaign has resulted in resolutions passing in Geneva every year since 1999, and in the General Assembly annually since 2005, awareness and concern has grown in recent years over what critics see as an attempt to limit free expression and to shield Islam – and some of the more controversial practices associated with it, especially relating to the treatment of women and “apostates” – from critical scrutiny.
Ahead of this week’s vote, almost 200 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – including some in Islamic countries – put their name to an appeal urging the HRC to oppose the defamation of religion resolution.
The statement says the OIC’s “pervasive and mounting campaign” amounts to an attempt to legitimize blasphemy laws and restrict freedom of expression. The resolutions “may be used in certain countries to silence and intimidate human rights activists, religious dissenters, and other independent voices.”
Leading the signatory organizations are U.N. Watch, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Freedom House and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Others come from every continent, and include Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, human rights, legal and media groups. Participating Islamic NGOs hail from Lebanon, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Qatar, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan and Syria – as well as from the U.S. and Canada.
The statement also tackles two other, related issues – an initiative by a U.N. “ad-hoc committee” to identify gaps in existing human rights conventions with the view to amending them by inserting a defamation of religion protocol; and provisions in the draft outcome document for next month’s U.N. racism conference (“Durban II”) which it says endorse the religious defamation drive, using “coded language and veiled references.”
The NGOs urge all governments to resist the “ad-hoc committee” effort and to reject a Durban II outcome that supports the defamation of religions campaign – directly or indirectly.
‘Membership is a prize, not a gift’
Meanwhile, another group of human rights NGOs, with an eye on the forthcoming HRC elections on May 12, is calling for the process of filling council seats to be more competitive.
The HRC, established in 2006 as part of efforts to reform the world body, has been strongly criticized – by mostly Western governments and NGOs – for focusing disproportionately on Israel while paying relatively little attention to other situations around the world, and even defending some repressive regimes.
Western countries, sometimes joined by democracies elsewhere, have opposed these patterns of conduct, but because of the way council seats are allocated, they are invariably outvoted.
The highest number of seats that can be held at any one time by members of the Western group is seven. Meanwhile 13 each are allocated to Asia and Africa, eight to Latin America and six to Eastern Europe, making a total of 47.
Because of this, human rights advocates say, it is important for there to be competition within the five regional groups – to ensure that when voting for five seats earmarked for Asia, for instance, General Assembly members can choose from a slate of more than five candidates, selecting the best candidates from the region.
In the first HRC election, in 2006, many countries were keen to join the new body, and all regional groups except Africa put up more candidates than there were available seats.
(Even in groups where there was competition, however, and despite the requirement that U.N. member states take into account candidates’ human rights records when casting votes, some countries with poor records triumphed, and the new council included countries like China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Russia.)
By 2007, only two regional groups, the Western group and Eastern Europe, put forward more candidates than seats, and in last year’s election, two of the five groups – Africa and Latin America – had no contest.
In letters sent to all five regional groups on Wednesday, representatives of more than 20 rights organizations, including Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and the Democracy Coalition Project, urged them to present competitive slates.
They encouraged countries that felt they could “make a real contribution to the council” to announce their candidacies.
“A seat on the Human Rights Council is a prize that should be won by candidates, not a gift handed to them,” said Dokhi Fassihian, executive director of the Democracy Coalition Project
Members serve for three years and membership is staggered, so in 2009 18 seats will be up for grabs – five each for Asia and Africa, three each for the Western group and Latin America, and two for Eastern Europe.
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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow