Islamic Nations Seek Legally Binding Way to Counter Religious ‘Defamation’

By Patrick Goodenough | November 16, 2009 | 4:31am EST

Support at the U.N. for OIC-sponsored resolutions on religious 'defamation' has been dropping over the past four years. ( graph)

( – As support wanes for its campaign to secure controversial but non-binding “defamation of religion” resolutions at the United Nations, the Islamic bloc is pushing ahead with an alternative route – one that would carry the weight of international law.
The OIC is now attempting to have a key U.N. panel amend an existing international treaty to encompass supposedly religiously defamatory speech.
Unlike the resolutions, changing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) to cover religion would be legally enforceable.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has for the past decade overseen the passage of non-binding resolutions at the U.N. General Assembly and human rights bodies.
Last week, the most recent effort passed in the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with social, cultural, and humanitarian issues. It will go before the full General Assembly for a vote next month, but the committee vote indicates a continuing, measurable decline in support.
Eighty-one countries voted for the resolution, 55 opposed it and 43 abstained. The result showed less support for and more opposition against the resolution than for those introduced by the OIC over the last three years.
As in past years, most support came from the 57-member OIC (although two members, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon, abstained) plus non-Muslim allies in the developing world, led by China, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela.
Comparisons of voting records from 2006 to date reveal a continuing erosion of support in Latin America. Chile, Mexico, Panama, Uruguay all voted against the OIC-led resolution this year, having abstained in 2008. Elsewhere, Lesotho and Sri Lanka were among those who moved from supporting the resolution in 2008, to abstaining this year.
The OIC argues that religion needs to be protected from “defamation” – acts such as the publication of newspaper cartoons satirizing Mohammed, or the suggestion that the Koran promotes violence against non-Muslims.
Although its resolutions purport to cover all religions, Islam is the only one cited by name. The text passed by the Third Committee voices concern that “Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.”
The OIC campaign has been confronted by freedom of expression advocates who say the bloc is trying to shield Islam, its teachings, practices, institutions and leaders, from legitimate criticism or scrutiny.
Critics say defamation prohibitions should cover individuals, not religions. They charge that resolution proponents are trying to introduce in Western societies similar restrictions to those enforced in some Islamic countries, where converts from Islam or those with dissident views risk trial for apostasy or blasphemy.
‘Binding normative standards’
Unlike the nonbinding U.N. resolutions, the OIC’s alternative strategy proposes to develop “new binding normative standards relating to religious ideas, objects and positions,” including “legal prohibition of publication of materials that negatively stereotypes, insults or uses of offensive language on matters regarded by followers of any religion or belief as sacred.”

Organization of the Islamic Conference Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. (Photo: OIC)

Its target in this part of the campaign is a panel known as the “ad hoc committee on the elaboration of complementary international standards.” The committee’s function is to update ICERD and other existing international human rights conventions, filling in “gaps” and ensuring that the conventions cover “all forms of contemporary racism, including incitement to racial and religious hatred.”
Article four of the ICERD prohibits the “dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred” as well as “incitement to racial discrimination, as well as acts of violence or incitement to such acts.”
The OIC wants the “ad-hoc committee” to expand the racial focus to include religion.
In a position paper earlier this year, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom said expanding provisions like the ICERD to cover religion “would undermine international human rights guarantees, including the freedom of religion” and “undermine the institutions that protect universal human rights worldwide.”
The U.S. commission also noted that the U.N. treaty body established to oversee the ICERD, the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, said in a 2007 opinion paper that the drafters of the convention never meant to include religion, and that “discrimination based exclusively on religious grounds was not intended to fall within the purview of the Convention.”
In a statement issued Sunday to mark the “International Day for Tolerance,” OIC secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said that “Muslims continue to suffer from the rising trend of Islamophobia and the acts of incitement of hatred and stereotyping and discrimination based on their faith and culture in the West.”
He complained that “some media outlets” were misusing freedom of speech and expression “to justify their acts of incitement to hatred.”
Ihsanoglu said he wanted to reiterate that “Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance” and “Islamic teachings promote peaceful coexistence and respect for human dignity and honor.”

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