US Tries to Break ‘Religious Defamation’ vs. Free Speech Deadlock at UN

By Patrick Goodenough | October 4, 2009 | 9:56 PM EDT

The U.N. Human Rights Council met in Geneva from September 14 to October 2, with the U.S. for the first time taking part as a member. (U.N. Photo by Jess Hoffman)

( – Seeking to break a longstanding impasse between Western and Islamic nations over freedom of expression, the United States has piloted a finely-balanced resolution through the U.N.’s Human Rights Council which the two sides are choosing to interpret differently.

The resolution was adopted unanimously on Friday, the last day of a month-long session of the Geneva-based council which saw the U.S. actively participating as a member for the first time.

Free speech advocacy groups gave the move a cautious welcome, saying it marked an improvement but still posed difficulties.

The clash between freedom of expression and religious sensibilities, fueled by the furor over the newspaper cartoons satirizing Mohammed, has been one of the most consistently divisive issues in the HRC in its first three years of operation.

Critics have accused Islamic governments of trying to shield Islam from scrutiny and criticism in the non-Muslim world, in the same way as they do by enforcing blasphemy laws at home, often at the expense of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities.

The resolution stresses the importance of freedom of expression, calling it “one of the essential foundations of a democratic society” and urging countries to protect it.

It omits the controversial term “defamation of religion,” which the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has successfully inserted into previous such measures at the U.N.

The resolution does, however, refer to “negative racial and religious stereotyping,” and condemns any advocacy of “religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” It urges governments to “address and combat such incidents,” in line with their obligations under international law.

Reflecting the fragile compromise, delegates from both sides of the debate made it clear in their statements that they interpreted the key paragraph of the resolution – the one referring to religion – differently.

Speaking on behalf of the European Union, French representative Jean-Baptiste Mattei said the language about stereotyping referred to the stereotyping of individuals, not religions, ideologies or abstract values.

Human rights laws do not and should not protect belief systems, he said, stressing that the E.U. continued to reject the concept of defamation of religion.

But Pakistan’s Zamir Akram, speaking for the OIC, used the terms “negative stereotyping” and “defamation of religions” interchangeably, and said the phenomenon affected not only individuals but also religions and belief systems.

The resolution was sponsored jointly by the U.S. and Egypt, and was seen as part of the Obama administration’s push to improve relations with the Islamic world. In a speech in Cairo last June, President Obama called for a “new beginning” after “years of distrust.”

Egypt is an active member of the OIC, a strong proponent of the religious “defamation” drive and a country frequently accused of violating free speech.

Article 19, a free speech organization, called the vote on the resolution a breakthrough, given the tensions that have marked discussions on the issue at the U.N.’s human rights bodies.

Executive director Agnes Callamard noted in particular the omission of the term “defamation of religion,” although she said “religious stereotyping” was a vague concept that suggested that religions and religious ideas and symbols, rather than religious adherents, may be protected by international human rights law.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a leading opponent of the religious “defamation” push, said the resolution passed Friday was a step in the right direction but still contained problematic language.

“This resolution will be seen as a victory if it is the death knell for the concept of ‘defamation of religions,’” said advocacy officer L. Bennett Graham. “But if it continues to provide international cover for overbroad anti-blasphemy laws around the world, it will only exacerbate the problem.”

Angela C. Wu, the international law director at the Washington-based public interest law firm, said it was time the U.N. abandoned language suggesting that religions, rather than people, deserve protection.

“We are disappointed the new freedom of expression resolution does not make this more explicit,” she said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, in Washington on October 2, 2009. The 57-member OIC has spearheaded the campaign at the U.N. against the “defamation” of religion, particularly Islam. (Photo: State Department)

A decade of resolutions

“Defamation of religion” resolutions have passed at the HRC for the past three years, and at its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, every year from 1999 to 2005. The U.N. General Assembly has also passed one in each of the past four years.

The most recent resolution at the HRC passed last March by a 23-11 vote, with 13 countries abstaining.

Countries voting in favor included 15 OIC member along with their allies China, Russia, Cuba, South Africa, Angola, Nicaragua, Bolivia and the Philippines.

Canada, Chile and nine European countries voted against. (The U.S. was not yet a member.)

At the General Assembly, where the OIC has less clout than at the 47-member council, observers have seen an erosion of support for the notion of religious “defamation” in recent years, as free speech, religious liberty and humanist organizations have stepped up their advocacy against the OIC campaign.

The most recent resolution passed last December 86-53, with 42 countries abstaining. A year earlier, the vote had gone 108-51, with 25 abstentions.

Wu of The Becket Fund said that despite the concerns about Friday’s HRC resolution, the consensus vote for a freedom of expression measure was hopefully an indication that the tide has changed.

“All eyes should be on next month’s General Assembly vote on ‘defamation of religions,’” she said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow