UN drops “defamation of religion” proposals – but offers no protection to non-believers or apostates

The proposals by Islamic countries for an international ban on “defamation of religion”, which were to be discussed at an anti-racism conference in Geneva called Durban II organised by the United Nations Human Rights Council, have been dropped from the meeting’s draft declaration.

The defamation of religion text had been included after Islamic countries lobbied for them following a 2005 furore over Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed. But alarm has spread through Western countries about the implications of the proposals and an increasing number of countries were threatening to boycott the meeting unless they were dropped.

The new draft proposals also dropped criticism of Israel and passages concerning reparation for slavery, which African countries had been seeking. But some issues on which Western liberals were keen were also excluded: a proposal to challenge discrimination against homosexuals and protection for atheists or apostates. The new draft, put together by Russian facilitator Yuri Boychenko with Belgian, Egyptian and Norwegian diplomats, has now to be examined by regional groups at the United Nations.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said: “We now have a good, solid basis for states to consider as we enter the final stretch leading up to the Review Conference. I really hope that this marks the necessary breakthrough needed to achieve consensus on a text that must offer concrete help to hundreds of groups and millions of individuals who are subjected to racism and other forms of intolerance all across the world. No continent, indeed no individual country, is free of these dangerous phenomena, and it would be inexcusable if states failed to reach consensus on such important issues.”

But Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), who has done much to challenge and raise awareness of the draft document, said that although the new draft offers some protection to believers — paragraph 10 mentions only Christians, Muslims and Jews as being victims of “phobias” — it offers nothing to non-believers or apostates who are frequently under attack, especially in Muslim counties.

In a briefing paper for delegates, IHEU says:

We urge delegations to recognise that all are entitled to protection from discrimination, whatever their belief or lack of belief. We therefore respectfully suggest either that the list of specific types of discrimination be deleted from paragraph 10, or the list be expanded to include Atheists, unbelievers and apostates.

We are equally concerned that anti-Arabism is included in the list, while no mention is made of the anti-Westernism endemic in many parts of the world. Again, we would respectfully suggest that either the reference to anti-Arabism be deleted or that the list should be extended to include anti-Westernism.

Last week Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, had a meeting with top Foreign Office officials discussing IHEU’s concerns about several aspects of the Durban II and wider concerns about the operation of the UNHRC. These are issues on which he has worked with IHEU.
Following the Foreign Office meeting he said: “Defamation of religion laws were top of the agenda and we were delighted to be assured of the determination to stand firm against them by the UK Government and its EU partners. This is great news and the Government generously recognised the contribution we have made in drawing worldwide attention to the growing clamour of Islamic states for defamation proposals since they were first mooted.”

More detail of the meeting will be circulated to members in the next quarterly Bulletin.

Roy Brown told Newsline from the UNHRC in Geneva that the revised document was “close, but not close enough” to being acceptable. “We’ll keep plugging away,” he said.

20 March 2009