This UN Human Rights Council will today adopt a resolution on freedom of expression, renewing the mandate of the expert charged with investigating violations. The resolution was initiated by Canada, with the co-sponsorship of Uganda. Another 50 countries joined as co-sponsors, including the US, France, Israel, Germany, Slovenia, UK, Japan, Mexico, and Australia. Several countries sought to water down the text, including China, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Belarus and South Africa. After weeks of debate, including five informal consultations, the West finally conceded what it called a major compromise. The text raises several concerns.
The Resolution weakens freedom of expression. Pakistan for the Islamic group, Egypt, Algeria, Belarus and China demanded restrictions on freedom of expression. In what they described as a major concession, Western states agreed to add a preambular paragraph:
Mindful also that article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that exercize of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but that these shall be only such as are provided by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or public health and morals, and that article 20 provides that any propaganda for war or advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
By expressly stating these restrictions, the mandate is now weakened.
“Defamation of Islam”
The above concession is only a small part in the massive campaign by Islamic states at the UN to make “defamation of religion” — with Islam being the only religion specified — the primary concern of international human rights law. During the debates, supporters of this line — including Pakistan for the Islamic group, Singapore, Russia, Bangladesh, South Africa, Algeria and China — argued that freedom of expression is not absolute. National security, counter-terrorism and protection of religion were cited as grounds for restrictions.
Indeed, in this session as before, the council adopted a resolution condemning “defamation of religion,” where freedom of the press was specifically targeted, an apparent reference to the Danish cartoons controversy.
During the informal meeting of March 19, 2008, Pakistan, China and others demanded even further concessions. Russia asked for the following amendment:
Recognizing that exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression may not justify incitement to terrorism, violence, racial or religious hatred, and has to be conducted responsibly and with respect to cultural, civilizational and religious diversity and values.
The US and the Czech Republic responded that the text had already made an enormous compromise, and that they were unwilling to make any further concessions.