Teddy Bear Affair Just A Taster

The National Secular Society has written to an Ambassador to the United Nations to draw attention to severe dangers highlighted by the Gillian Gibbons affair. The majority of Islamic states are pressing the United Nations Council on Human Rights to outlaw blasphemy or defamation of religion, the basis for Ms Gibbon’s imprisonment. If their view prevails, the National Secular Society expects many more such cases and, at the very least, a damaging growth in self-censorship worldwide.

Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society and its international umbrella group the International Humanist and Ethical Union have written to H.E. Mr Nicholas Alan Thorne CMG, British Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other International Organisations, Geneva, as follows:

“We would like to congratulate the Government and anyone else responsible for the diplomatic success in securing the release today of Gillian Gibbons from prison in the Sudan after her being convicted of blasphemy or defamation and sentenced to 15 days in prison for permitting children in a school at which she was teaching to name a teddy bear Mohammed.

“Could I ask you, however, to reflect on the wider dangers highlighted by this unfortunate episode and communicate them to Her Majesty’s Government. In our view, potentially extreme injustices can be expected to result if the growing calls in the UN to outlaw defamation of religion or blasphemy are heeded. Cruel punishments will result from innocent acts. Above all, freedom of expression will be comprised. Freedom of expression is the best mechanism we know of resolving differences of opinion and misunderstandings without recourse to violence.

“I write however without any superiority, being a subject of the UK, for whom the blasphemy laws – although rarely used – are still extant and have even been the subject of a High Court action in the last week.

“We would be pleased to participate in any discussion or provide any help sought on these matters.”

The letter has been written following a brief discussion with the Ambassador on the tensions surrounding defamation of religion between the IHEU delegation during the UN Council on Human Rights meeting in Geneva on 14 September 2007 when Keith Porteous Wood was one of the delegates.

December 3 2007