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For the fourth straight year, the UN General Assembly last week ignored pleas by human rights defenders and passed a resolution condemning the “defamation of religion“, especially Islam. [See vote breakdown below.]
Optimists hailed the move by citing the shift of several “yes” votes to abstentions, but the reality is that this totalitarian initiative is spreading throughout UN bodies — and now threatens to rewrite a core human rights treaty of the post-war era.
The campaign by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a bloc of 56 states at the UN, began in 1999 with annual resolutions at the discredited and now-defunct Human Rights Commission. In the wake of the post-9/11 war on Islamist terror, and especially after the 2005 controversy sparked when a Danish newspaper printed cartoons of their prophet, Islamic states pursued the diplomatic battle with a vengeance.
Proponents of the latest resolution argue that its intent is to protect religious believers from discrimination, particularly Muslims living in Western countries.
In reality, the resolutions pose a major threat to the premises and principles of international human rights law and harm Muslims as much as non-Muslims. International law already protects victims of religious discrimination, with guarantees under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The resolution is silent, though, on Saudi Arabia’s prohibition of any religious practice other than Islam; on Iran’s oppression of Baha’is; on the persecution of Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan
Indeed, according to the UN’s own designated defender of freedom of religion, Asma Jahangir of Pakistan, existing international agreements protect against “imminent acts of violence or discrimination against a specific individual or group,” including on the basis of religion.
In other words, the OIC is not really trying to protect individuals from harm, but rather to shield a set of beliefs from question or debate and to ban any discussion of Islam that may challenge state orthodoxies or offend Islamic sensibilities.
The very term “defamation of religion” is a distortion. The legal concept of defamation protects the reputations of individuals, not beliefs. It also requires an examination of the truth or falsity of the challenged remarks — a determination that no one, especially not the UN, is capable of undertaking concerning any religion.
What is at stake? Potentially, a great deal. If the defamation resolutions are implemented worldwide, it would become impossible to legally protest violence perpetrated in the name of religion because of the risk of offending believers. “Accusations of defamation,” Jahangir wrote recently, “might stifle legitimate criticism or even research on practices and laws appearing to be in violation of human rights but which are, or are at least perceived to be, sanctioned by religion.”
In too many countries, religion is invoked to persecute minorities, women, and homosexuals, or to justify acts of violence and terrorism. International laws should protect those who protest such crimes, and not those who justify the crimes and suppress dissent.
In addition, the resolution’s focus on the Islamic faith is discriminatory as well as misleading.
The initial Pakistani draft in 1999 was actually titled “Defamation of Islam.” Despite the broadened title, the resolution singles out “Islam and Muslims in particular” as the primary victims in need of protection, specifying no other religious faith or community.
Similarly, another of its chief concerns is that “Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.”
The resolution is silent, though, on Saudi Arabia’s prohibition of any religious practice other than Islam; on Iran’s oppression of Baha’is; on the persecution of Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan; on the death penalty for conversion from Islam in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan; and on the incitement to hatred against Jews in textbooks and on television screens throughout the Arab world, including anti-Semitic images of religious-looking Jews.
The greatest victims of blasphemy laws are reform-minded Muslims, especially women. For example, 23-year-old Sayed Pevek Lambaksh languishes in an Afghan prison because he “defamed” Islam by circulating an article that criticized the status of Muslim women. Similarly, Pakistan persecutes Ahmadi Muslims by claiming that their interpretation of the faith is an invalid affront to “true” Islam. Muslims — not Danes — are the first victims of this campaign.
All of this is taking place not just at the General Assembly, but throughout the UN. Consider the past year:
In March, the Islamic-controlled Human Rights Council rewrote the mandate of the monitor on freedom of expression. Instead of scrutinizing government restrictions on free speech, he is now required to police individuals’ “abuse” of that freedom — i.e., defamation of Islam.
In June, after a NGO representative spoke in the council about the use of shari’a to justify violations of women’s rights, the council president ruled that any negative mention of shari’a law was forbidden. The activist was interrupted 16 times, with Egypt saying that Islam should not be “crucified in this council.”
In October, the UN released a draft declaration for its upcoming Durban II racism conference, replete with provisions that decry the “defamation of Muslims, their faith, and beliefs.”
What most shocked Western states, though, was last week’s proposal by a Durban II subcommittee, chaired by Algeria, to revise the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, by introducing a ban on defamation of religion. Unlike declaratory resolutions, this would alter hard treaty law, directly affecting legal systems worldwide.
Last week the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the UN, however, its core principles are now under assault.
Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch, a human rights organization in Geneva, Switzerland (unwatch.org). The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
The newest Islamic-sponsored resolution on “Combating defamation of religion” (A/C.3/63/L.22/Rev.1) was adopted Thursday by a vote of 86 to 53, with 42 abstentions, as follows below. Selected votes of interest are in bold.
In favour: Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Bhutan, Bolivia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Djibouti, Dominica, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia,Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan,Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe.
Against: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Bulgaria, Canada, Cape Verde, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Palau, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Moldova, Romania, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States.
Abstain: Argentina, Armenia, Benin, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chile, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, India,Japan, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mexico, Mongolia, Nauru, Nepal, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Zambia.
Absent: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Kiribati, New Zealand, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Seychelles, Solomon Islands.
Upcoming Durban II Racism Conference
The U.N. agency charged with organizing the upcoming Durban II racism conference has on its website quietly altered the title of the Durban II “Draft Outcome Document” to instead read “Different sections of compilation of proposals”. Click here to see UN Watch’s graphic demonstration comparing the original and altered websites.
In face of broad European and American criticism of the current text, the U.N. rewrote the title in a bid to downplay the significance of offensive draft proposals that erode free speech, undermine democracy, and regurgitate the anti-Israel rhetoric from the original Durban conference of 2001.
In fact, the current draft, while being far from final approval, constitutes the sole basis of negotiations from now until the conference, which takes place April 20-24, 2009 in Geneva. Several sections have been reviewed without any objections.
The move comes as part of an aggressive new public relations campaign by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), replete with misrepresentations and apologetics, that is lashing out at governments (Canada and Israel), media (The Australian, Forbes), and organizations (unnamed), all of which have one thing in common: They dared to question the abuse of human rights and the anti-racism cause by Libya, Iran, and other repressive regimes.
In a rare personal attack, the OHCHR, which services the Islamic-controlled U.N. Human Rights Council, went after investigative journalist Claudia Rosett, whose Wall Street Journal reports single-handedly and heroically exposed the multi-billion dollar U.N. corruption scandal that became known as “oil-for-food”.
The OHCHR also made a thinly-veiled attack on Jewish organizations in a September statement, accusing unnamed “lobby groups” that “focused on single issues” of launching “ferocious, and often distorted, criticism” of the Durban II conference.
UN Watch immediately protested with a detailed letter (see below) urging spokesman Rupert Colville to retract the innuendo-laced statement. To date, the UN has refused to do so, much less reply. Despite follow-up requests made to senior OHCHR officials, our appeal continues to go ignored.
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The following UN Watch letter to UN spokesperson Rupert Colville,
Mr. Rupert Colville
12 September 2008
Dear Mr. Colville,
We wish to express our deep concern over the press release published by the Office of the High Commissioner, dated 8 September 2008, entitled “Genocide is the ultimate form of discrimination, says new High Commissioner.” In purporting to provide background on the Durban Review Conference on racism, your release stated: “The conference process has been the subject of ferocious, and often distorted, criticism by certain lobby groups focused on single issues.” This kind of statement is unacceptable and we urge that it be immediately retracted.
Your depiction of unnamed “lobby groups” that criticize the Durban II process—groups “focused on single issues”—was a thinly veiled reference to Jewish or Jewish-affiliated organizations. The statement was intended to conjure up xenophobic and stereotypical images of the “Jewish lobby,” with its frightful allusion to shadowy organizations who level “distorted” criticism, conduct themselves in a “ferocious” manner, and who, rather than being committed to universal and shared principles, are selfishly “focused on single issues.”
In other words, this was a purely ad hominem attack—playing on imagery reminiscent of that which circulated in Durban in 2001, which, as you know, was condemned by High Commissioner Mary Robinson—and intended to discredit and delegitimize those who dare to raise questions about abuses in the Durban II process. This kind of language and method is the very last thing one expects to see coming from the human rights office of the United Nations.
The truth is that there are many organizations of all kinds and from all regions that have expressed grave concerns related to the Durban Review Conference. For example, a coalition of 97 organizations, including United Nations Watch and other human rights NGOs, signed a statement warning against a repeat of the ugly scenes that surrounded the original Durban conference in 2001.
Our statement, which was read out by one of the signatories during the April 2008 preparatory meeting and is here attached, emphasized that “the global effort to eradicate racism cannot be advanced by branding whole peoples with a stigma of ultimate evil, fomenting hateful stereotyping in the name of human rights. The United Nations and its human rights fora must not serve as a vehicle for any form of racism, including anti-Semitism, and must bar incitement to hatred against any group in the guise of criticism of a particular government.” United Nations Watch urges you to give due consideration to this joint appeal, which echoes the June 2004 appeal of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
We also wish to make three points.
First, our own organization will continue to be outspoken for a just anti-racism conference, as have the governments of France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, Israel, and many others. We will continue to speak out against the attempt by countries like Libya, Iran and Cuba—Chair, Vice-Chair and Rapporteur of the Durban II bureau—to hijack the anti-racism cause for their agenda of hate, incitement and oppression.
We will oppose the latest provisions, adopted by the African regional conference in Abuja, Nigeria, that attack the right to free speech as a “pretext”; that seek to portray the West’s liberal democracies as more intolerant than the world’s most oppressive regimes; and that ignore the Sudanese regime’s racist murder and rape of black Africans in Darfur, along with every other human rights violation in the region. We will also demand, along with 96 other anti-racist organizations, zero tolerance for the singling-out of the Palestinian situation in a manner aimed at demonizing Israel or the Jewish people as racist—precisely what is committed by Paragraph 32 of the Abuja text. All of these provisions, and any similar ones that we fear will appear in the upcoming Asian declaration, must be excluded from the final outcome document that is now being drafted in Geneva.
Second, to the extent that your statement may have intended to include our own organization, we note that our focus covers the full range of issues relating to the implementation of the principles and guarantees of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As we speak out against racism, inequality and persecution of all kinds, and for victims of violations around the globe, we stand at the forefront in opposing anti-Semitism, whose eradication was a founding motivation of the United Nations and of its key human rights instruments.
However, and this is our third and final point, even groups that are focused on the single issue of combating anti-Semitism are not as a consequence diminished in their right to speak out as they wish. As you know, a great many of the non-governmental organizations accredited to the United Nations focus on particular issues and situations that affect their constituencies. This, therefore, cannot be grounds to disqualify the concerns voiced by any organization. If the intended proposition is that all single-issue groups are legitimate except those that defend the rights of Jews, it cannot stand.
Surely, though, this is all a case of blaming the truth-tellers. For if there is any “single issue” institution that ought to be of concern to human rights proponents, it is the UN Human Rights Council, the overseer of Durban II, whose country resolutions, agenda items, and emergency sessions, have done little else other than single out Israel for one-sided condemnation, at the expense of human rights victims in 191 other countries.
In conclusion, we do not wish to hold professionals of the UN Secretariat accountable for the actions of Libya and like-thinking countries. This will be possible only so long as your office maintains its independence from the political decisions adopted by the governments that are behind the Durban Review Conference.
While we may not agree about the current direction of the Durban Review Conference, United Nations Watch hopes that this important discussion can be conducted in the spirit of dialogue, in a constructive manner and on a substantive level. In so doing, we will mutually benefit our common cause: the protection of the world’s millions of victims of human rights violations, intolerance and persecution.
Ambassador Alfred H. Moses, Chair
 “Let us acknowledge that the United Nations’ record on anti-Semitism has at times fallen short of our ideals. The General Assembly resolution of 1975, equating Zionism with racism, was an especially unfortunate decision. I am glad that it has since been rescinded. But there remains a need for constant vigilance… So let us actively and uncompromisingly refute those [who] continue to spread lies and vile stereotypes about Jews and Judaism… When we seek justice for the Palestinians—as we must—let us firmly disavow anyone who tries to use that cause to incite hatred against Jews, in Israel or elsewhere. The human rights machinery of the United Nations has been mobilized in the battle against anti-Semitism, and this must continue.” UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Remarks to United Nations Seminar, June 21, 2004.
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