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Universal Human Rights “terminally damaged” by Islamic demands

Concerns have been expressed this week that the activities of Islamic nations at the United Nations Human Rights Council are terminally damaging the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The claims follow the adoption by the UNHRC of a resolution urging all member countries to enact legislation outlawing “defamation of religion” – particularly Islam. The motion was tabled by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), a 57-member bloc of mainly African and Asian nations.

After this came a motion that proposed to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. Egypt and Pakistan tabled an amendment to this requiring the Special Rapporteur in future to “report acts of racial or religious discrimination” that constitute “abuse of freedom of expression.” In the words of the Canadian delegation: “instead of promoting freedom of expression the Special Rapporteur would be policing its exercise.”

Shortly before the vote, 40 civil society organisations pleaded with the Human Rights Council to protect the mandate of the Special Rapporteur by rejecting the amendment. Tellingly, most of these groups came from within Islamic conference's member states. They said, “While international law permits certain restrictions on speech to protect reputation of individuals, these restrictions are not extended to cover religions per se. International law does not entirely rule out restrictions on speech to protect religion but circumscribes the precise scope of such restrictions. Religious believers have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs, but religion itself cannot be set free from criticism.”

These pleas failed to move the Islamic delegates and the amendment was adopted by 27 votes to 15 against, with three abstentions. Britain, Canadian and EU countries voted against. The amended or substantive motion was then passed 32–0, with western nations tactically abstaining to make clear that they still supported the spirit of the original motion.

The defeat was seen as a move against forms of expression that Muslims could not tolerate, such as the Danish Muhammad cartoons.

The developments drew strong criticism from several other NGOs. Press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders called the changes “dramatic” and said the growing influence of the OIC in the Human Rights Council was “disturbing.”… “All of the council's decisions are nowadays determined by the interests of the Muslim countries or powerful states such as China or Russia that know how to surround themselves with allies,” it said.

The free speech non-governmental organization Article 19 joined with an Egypt-based rights group, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, in a joint statement saying the council process was being repeatedly misused "to push for an agenda that has nothing to do with strengthening human rights and everything to do with protecting autocracies and political point scoring."

Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan claimed on behalf of the OIC, however that the resolution would not limit free speech and simply attempted to require people to “exercise their freedom of expression responsibly” – that is to say, in the way that the religious authorities demand. Egypt's ambassador, Sameh Shoukry, said the right to freedom from religious discrimination and defamation was not being sufficiently protected, permitting “some of the worst practices that incite racial and religious hatred.”

The U.S., Canada and some European countries said the measure would not only curtail freedom of expression but also help dictatorial regimes block dissenting views. Ambassador Warren W. Tichenor told the Human Rights Council: “The resolution adopted attempts to legitimise the criminalisation of expression.” The United States is not a member of the council but can speak as an observer.

Human Rights Watch said the changes to the mandate "clearly calls into question the very essence of media freedom and independence."

The OIC countries have since been busy trying to stir up a Danish cartoons-type crisis in the Islamic world over a film, Fitna, made by Dutch MP Geert Wilders that is critical of the Koran. So far, this has been relatively muted, but the pressure is building.

Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (to which the NSS is affiliated) who has been trying to raise the alarm about this, has more details here. Mr Brown said: “Canada’s position was echoed by several delegations, who objected to the change of focus from protecting to limiting freedom of expression. More than 20 of the original 53 co-sponsors of the resolution withdrew their sponsorship. These included the European Union and the United Kingdom (speaking for Australia and the United States), India, Switzerland, Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala.”

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society has been working closely with IHEU to try to raise awareness of the rapidly deteriorating situation at the UNHRC. He spoke about it earlier today on the BBC World Service. Mr Wood said: “Islamic countries’ domination of the UNHRC has been leading to increasing difficulties, but last week’s events mark a new low point which is clear for all to see. The UNHRC has become an instrument to police freedom of expression and whitewash human rights abuses, unless they are alleged to have taken place in Israel. At best, the reputation and effectiveness of the UNHRC has been seriously undermined. But my view is even bleaker. As presently constituted, the UNHRC’s credibility and future as a human rights body is finished and with it any pretence that Human Rights are Universal.

The Human Rights Council has no enforcement powers, but is supposed to act as the world's moral conscience. It has been accused of spending excessive amounts of time focusing on Israel while giving a free pass to countries with poor records of observing human rights. The U.S. Senate voted in September to cut off U.S. funding for the council, accusing it of bias.

Roy Brown said this week: "We have just witnessed the death of the Human Rights Council, and with it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saw the writing on the wall three years ago when he spoke of the old Commission on Human Rights having "become too selective and too political in its work". The old system needed to be swept away and replaced. The Human Rights Council was supposed to be that new start, a Council whose members genuinely supported, and were prepared to defend, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Three years later, Annan's dream lies shattered, and the Human Rights Council stands exposed as no longer capable of fulfilling its central role: the promotion and protection of human rights. NGOs and those States that are genuinely concerned with human rights should now seriously consider withdrawing from the Council until such time as it puts its house in order. Or failing that, set up their own organisation actually committed to the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Mr Brown said: “Freedom of expression is most important for those who live under the tyranny of Islamic law. This was highlighted by the courageous group of 21 NGOs from the Islamic States who issued a statement appealing to delegations not to support the amendment.”
Read a full report on the resolution and debate
See also:
Wee Frees want to silence Dawkins
Arabs condemn Saudi religious call for death for “apostate” writers

4 April 2008