America comes out in opposition to defamation of religion move

Christian groups around the world have joined human rights and civil liberties organisations in opposing the reintroduction of a motion at the United Nations Human Rights Council that would outlaw “defamation of religious” – in effect an international blasphemy law.

The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), a bloc of 56 Islamic states, is proposing the non-binding motion, as it has done every year since 1999. In effect, it would make it illegal to “defame religion” anywhere in the world, although the only religion named in the motion is Islam.

Now, Christian groups are coming to realise that the purpose of the motion is not only to silence the critics of Islam generally but to provide an internationally recognised legal right to punish Christians in Islamic countries.

On Monday the Obama administration came out strongly against the resolution. US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, told reporters "Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion. I strongly disagree."

Clinton said the United States was opposed to negative depictions of specific faiths and would always fight against belief-based discrimination. But she said a person’s ability to practise their religion was entirely unrelated to another person’s right to free speech. “The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faith will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions,” Clinton said. “These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse.”

Michael Posner, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labour, said the resolution “goes too far.”

“The notion that a religion can be defamed and that any comments that are negative about that religion can constitute a violation of human rights to us violates the core principle of free speech,” he said.

Posner was part of a delegation at the Human Rights Council that successfully negotiated with Egypt a compromise over another similar resolution that had aimed to condemn religion-related harassment or discrimination. He said the administration wanted to differentiate between such harassment and defamation and would do so both in the Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly.

“There are limits to free expression and there are certainly concerns about people targeting individuals because of their religious belief or their race or their ethnicity,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re also clear that a resolution, broadly speaking, that talks about the defamation of a religion is a violation of free speech.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “This resolution is so manipulative and so obviously aimed solely at shielding Islam from criticism that I am surprised that anyone takes it seriously. Let’s not forget that in its original incarnation it was titled ‘Defamation of Islam’. I am pleased that the US has now set itself against the proposal. We do not want to see the repressive and cruel restrictions and abuses of human rights that are routine in these Islamic tyrannies seeping out into the rest of the world. If the UNHRC continues to carry this resolution, it will bring itself into even further disrepute and it will be clear that its agenda has been hijacked by religious extremists. We must always remember that human rights are for humans — individual humans — and not for ideologies or theologies. Once you extend the concept of human rights beyond the individual, you destroy its very concept.”