Nineteen is the Number to Watch as UN Committee Prepares to Vote on Religious ‘Defamation’

By Patrick Goodenough | November 19, 2010 | 12:07 AM EST

In this photo released by the Saudi Press Agency, the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, welcomes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. The new U.S. envoy to the OIC, Rashad Hussain, stands behind Clinton’s left shoulder. (AP Photo/HO)

( – As a U.N. General Assembly committee prepares to vote on a controversial religious “defamation” resolution – possibly as early as Friday – critics will be keen to see how successful their lobbying against the Islamic-led initiative has been.

Nineteen will be the number to better. That was the margin of difference between countries voting for and against the resolution in 2009. The result then was 80-61 in favor of the resolution, with 42 abstentions.

Any margin smaller than 19 this year will be welcome by opponents, although an outright defeat of the measure is the ultimate goal.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)-sponsored text has passed at the General Assembly every year since 2005 (and at the U.N.’s human rights body in Geneva every year since 1999.)

The past three years have seen waning support, however: The 2006 and 2007 resolutions passed by a margin of 57 votes, but that dropped to 33 in 2008 and then to 19 last year. Anything below that number this year will indicate that the opposition – from a wide range of interests including Western governments, religious freedom and free speech advocacy groups – is continuing to make an impact.

The OIC, a bloc of 56 countries, argues that Islam and its teachings, symbols and prophetic figures are being denigrated by non-Muslims as a result of ignorance, prejudice or fear, especially over the period since 9/11.

It includes in these acts of “Islamophobia” incidents such as the publication of newspaper cartoons satirizing Mohammed, security “profiling,” threats to burn copies of the Qur’an, or claims that Islam’s revered text promotes violence against non-Muslims.

OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu voiced dismay last spring about the diminishing support for the annual resolution, warning against “the loss of a political and legal mainstay in the defense of our faith, our values and our sanctities.”

Opponents of the “defamation” drive counter that the OIC is trying to shield Islam, Islamic practices and clerics from legitimate scrutiny or criticism.

They charge that the OIC is trying to introduce in Western societies similar restrictions to those enforced in some Islamic countries, where non-Muslim minorities and converts from Islam face harassment and the risk of prosecution for apostasy or blasphemy.

The Christian religious freedom organization Open Doors USA said this week that while the OIC says the resolution aims to promote tolerance and protect religious freedom, “it does the exact opposite for Christians, other religious minorities and even Muslims who do not adhere to government-approved versions of Islam. In effect, the Defamation of Religions Resolution is an international blasphemy law.”

Open Doors has been lobbying missions at the U.N. and has an advocacy campaign urging Christians to lobby their lawmakers to contact foreign governments about the resolution.

In a recent report the democracy watchdog Freedom House said that blasphemy laws are “responsible for broad violations of human rights, particularly when applied in weak democracies and authoritarian systems.”

Although the OIC’s annual resolutions purport to target “defamation” of all religions, like previous ones this year’s text, introduced by Morocco on behalf of the Islamic bloc, mentions only one religion by name – Islam.

The draft resolution faces an imminent vote by the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with social, cultural, and humanitarian issues.

Although the final and definitive vote for the 2010 text will be taken by the full General Assembly next month, the Third Committee result will give a good indication of the likely outcome.

The bulk of support for the resolutions comes from the OIC itself, backed by non-Muslim allies like China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and numerous countries in Africa.

In the past few years, the measurable decline in support has arisen primarily from non-Muslim developing countries changing their stance from voting for the resolution, to abstaining.

Some countries, notably in Latin America and the Pacific, have shifted from abstaining to voting against the resolution.

On the other hand the OIC has managed to persuade a small handful of countries, mostly in Africa, to move in its direction.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday reiterated the U.S. opposition to the religious “defamation” initiative.

“Some people propose that to protect religious freedom, we must ban speech that is critical or offensive,” she said while releasing the State Department’s annual report on international religions freedom.

“We do not agree. The United States joins in all nations coming together to condemn hateful speech. But we do not support the banning of that speech.”

Clinton argued that communities are enriched by a diversity of ideas.

“Societies in which freedom of religion and speech flourish are more resilient, more stable, more peaceful, and more productive.”

Countries to watch

Among countries that voted for the OIC-drafted resolution in 2009 and may be open to changing change their stance this year 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 may 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