Accessibility links

The Defamation Of Human Rights

  • Hillel Neuer

Supporters of the resolution say it will help protect Muslims worldwide

Supporters of the resolution say it will help protect Muslims worldwide

For the fourth straight year, the UN General Assembly last week ignored pleas by human rights defenders and passed a resolution condemning the "defamation of religions," especially Islam. Optimists hailed the move by citing the shift of several "yes" votes to abstentions, but the reality is that this totalitarian initiative is spreading throughout UN bodies -- and now threatens to rewrite a core human rights treaty of the post-war era.

The campaign by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a bloc of 56 states at the UN, began in 1999 with annual resolutions at the discredited and now-defunct Human Rights Commission. In the wake of the post-9/11 war on Islamist terror, and especially after the 2005 controversy sparked when a Danish newspaper printed cartoons of their prophet, Islamic states pursued the diplomatic battle with a vengeance.

Proponents of the latest resolution argue that its intent is to protect religious believers from discrimination, particularly Muslims living in Western countries.

In reality, the resolutions pose a major threat to the premises and principles of international human rights law and harm Muslims as much as non-Muslims. International law already protects victims of religious discrimination, with guarantees under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The resolution is silent, though, on Saudi Arabia's prohibition of any religious practice other than Islam; on Iran's oppression of Baha'is; on the persecution of Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan

Indeed, according to the UN's own designated defender of freedom of religion, Asma Jahangir of Pakistan, existing international agreements protect against "imminent acts of violence or discrimination against a specific individual or group," including on the basis of religion.

In other words, the OIC is not really trying to protect individuals from harm, but rather to shield a set of beliefs from question or debate and to ban any discussion of Islam that may challenge state orthodoxies or offend Islamic sensibilities.

The very term "defamation of religion" is a distortion. The legal concept of defamation protects the reputations of individuals, not beliefs. It also requires an examination of the truth or falsity of the challenged remarks -- a determination that no one, especially not the UN, is capable of undertaking concerning any religion.

What is at stake? Potentially, a great deal. If the defamation resolutions are implemented worldwide, it would become impossible to legally protest violence perpetrated in the name of religion because of the risk of offending believers. "Accusations of defamation," Jahangir wrote recently, "might stifle legitimate criticism or even research on practices and laws appearing to be in violation of human rights but which are, or are at least perceived to be, sanctioned by religion."

Protecting Muslims

In too many countries, religion is invoked to persecute minorities, women, and homosexuals, or to justify acts of violence and terrorism. International laws should protect those who protest such crimes, and not those who justify the crimes and suppress dissent.

In addition, the resolution's focus on the Islamic faith is discriminatory as well as misleading.

The initial Pakistani draft in 1999 was actually titled "Defamation of Islam." Despite the broadened title, the resolution singles out "Islam and Muslims in particular" as the primary victims in need of protection, specifying no other religious faith or community.

Similarly, another of its chief concerns is that "Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism."

The resolution is silent, though, on Saudi Arabia's prohibition of any religious practice other than Islam; on Iran's oppression of Baha'is; on the persecution of Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan; on the death penalty for conversion from Islam in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan; and on the incitement to hatred against Jews in textbooks and on television screens throughout the Arab world, including anti-Semitic images of religious-looking Jews.

The greatest victims of blasphemy laws are reform-minded Muslims, especially women. For example, 23-year-old Sayed Pevek Lambaksh languishes in an Afghan prison because he "defamed" Islam by circulating an article that criticized the status of Muslim women. Similarly, Pakistan persecutes Ahmadi Muslims by claiming that their interpretation of the faith is an invalid affront to "true" Islam. Muslims -- not Danes -- are the first victims of this campaign.

All of this is taking place not just at the General Assembly, but throughout the UN. Consider the past year:

In March, the Islamic-controlled Human Rights Council rewrote the mandate of the monitor on freedom of expression. Instead of scrutinizing government restrictions on free speech, he is now required to police individuals' "abuse" of that freedom -- i.e., defamation of Islam.

In June, after a NGO representative spoke in the council about the use of shari'a to justify violations of women's rights, the council president ruled that any negative mention of shari'a law was forbidden. The activist was interrupted 16 times, with Egypt saying that Islam should not be "crucified in this council."

In October, the UN released a draft declaration for its upcoming Durban II racism conference, replete with provisions that decry the "defamation of Muslims, their faith, and beliefs."

What most shocked Western states, though, was last week's proposal by a Durban II subcommittee, chaired by Algeria, to revise the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, by introducing a ban on defamation of religion. Unlike declaratory resolutions, this would alter hard treaty law, directly affecting legal systems worldwide. Last week the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the UN, however, its core principles are now under assault.

Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch, a nongovernmental organization in Geneva that monitors the UN based on adherence to its own charter. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Show comments