Issue 211: In New York Times, UN Watch Defends Muslim Religious Freedom, But Slams Islamist UN Campaign Against Free Speech

In New York Times, UN Watch Defends Muslim Religious Freedom, But Slams Islamist UN Campaign Against Free Speech
Today’s New York Times published the letter below by UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer. The threat to free speech by the Islamist UN campaign was underscored by Friday’s adoption of another UN resolution banning “defamation of religion.” Thanks to advocacy by UN Watch and 100 allied human rights groups, however, more countries opposed the measure than ever before. See more below.

December 19, 2009
A Swiss Ban on Minarets

To the Editor:

Re “Europe’s Minaret Moment,” by Ross Douthat (column, Dec. 7): We, part of the Geneva human rights community, are particularly embarrassed by Switzerland’s vote to ban minarets and will work energetically toward its speedy repeal.

Paradoxically, the most intolerant Islamists are likely to be strengthened by this act of bigotry, not weakened. Acts of intolerance by Western countries provide justification for banning religious freedom in Muslim countries.

These efforts have found expression at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where an Algerian-headed committee is advocating changes to an international covenant on discrimination to grant Islamic governments free rein to silence dissenters in the name of a supposed human right against “defamation of religion.” But questioning or criticism of Islamic orthodoxies by individuals — religious dissenters, human rights activists or journalists — is protected speech, and an essential part of religious and political freedom.

What a pity that Switzerland’s minaret folly — which, at the least, discourages religious expression by individuals — may end up hurting non-Muslim minorities in the Mideast as well as liberal Muslims. The overt banning of Muslim structures by a government is wrongful discrimination.

Hillel C. Neuer
Executive Director, U.N. Watch
Geneva, Dec. 11, 2009

Support lower for Islamic U.N. text on ‘religion defamation’

December 18, 2009
By Patrick Worsnip

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. General Assembly condemned defamation of religion for the fifth year running on Friday but support continued to erode for a resolution Western countries say threatens freedom of speech.

The assembly passed the Islamic-sponsored resolution with 80 votes in favor, 61 against and 42 abstentions. That compared with 86 votes to 53 with 42 abstentions for a similar text last year and figures of 108-51-25 in 2007, the last time the measure commanded an absolute majority of U.N. members.

The nonbinding resolution has gone through every year since it was prompted in 2005 by a row over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that appeared in a Danish newspaper, sparking bloody protests by Muslims around the world.

The seven-page text urges states to provide “adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from the defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general.”

It also says freedom of speech may “be subject to limitations as … are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals.”

The only religion the resolution specifically names as a target of defamation is Islam. It deplores ethnic and religious profiling of Muslims since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and says Islam is often and wrongly associated with terrorism.

China and Russia joined Islamic and some sub-Saharan African states in voting for the resolution, which was opposed by Western and some Latin American and small-island states.


Speaking for Islamic states, Syrian delegate Warif Halabi told the assembly that defamation of religion led to “an outright campaign of hate speech and negative stereotyping, targeting all the tenets and adherents of Islam or other religions.”

“It depicts them as vicious, uncivilized and terrorists. The tool used to reach this goal is concealed under the banner of freedom of expression,” she said.

No opponents of the measure spoke in Friday’s assembly session. The resolution had been debated last month in an assembly committee dealing with human rights.

But Angela Wu of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said the resolution “provides international cover for domestic blasphemy laws that are overbroad and easy to abuse.”

“The concept of ‘defamation of religions’ undermines the foundations of human rights law by protecting ideas instead of people, and empowering states instead of their citizens,” Wu said in a statement.

In separate votes, the assembly condemned human rights violations in North Korea and Iran.

The voting closely followed that in the assembly’s rights committee last month, with Saudi Arabia, which has accused Tehran of supporting Shi’ite rebels in neighboring Yemen, again breaking ranks with most other Muslim states and backing the resolution on Iran.

UN Watch Heads Battle Against UN’s Algerian-Led ‘Ad Hoc Committee’

For the past year, UN Watch has led the Geneva battle against the Algerian-led committee of the UN Human Rights Council that seeks to criminalize any critique of Islam as form of “defamation” and “racism” under international human rights law. Our advocacy prompted this recent AP feature article. Last year we helped assemble an international protest by 200 human rights groups. This year we worked with an NGO coalition in sending the appeal below. Our ongoing coverage of this UN assault on free speech can be found on the UN Watch blog.

October 20, 2009

His Excellency Ambassador Idriss Jazairy
Chair, Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards
Permanent Mission of Algeria to the UN in Geneva
Geneva, Switzerland

Dear Ambassador Jazairy:

We are writing to express serious concern about proposals to create new legal mechanisms or changes to the existing international legal framework to combat the serious problems of racism, racial discrimination, xenophopia and related intolerance under consideration by the Ad Hoc Committee for the Elaboration of Complementary Standards.

A number of United Nations member states have proposed the establishment of new legal standards, in the form of a convention or an additional protocol to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which would combat “incitement to racial and religious hatred.” The proposals will be discussed at the meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee, which commenced in Geneva on October 19.

We strongly urge the defeat of such proposals and emphasize that any attempts to address issues of racial or religious hatred conform to existing standards of international law, which already accept limitations of freedoms based on potential public interest concerns such as incitement to violence and public order.

While our organizations are dedicated to fighting racism and other forms of intolerance, we oppose the creation of new legal mechanisms to address issues of racial and religious discrimination that we believe would degrade, and not enhance, human rights. As many governments on the committee have pointed out, existing international norms and standards are fully sufficient to combat the problem. The current priority should be ensuring their implementation.

In contrast, the establishment of a new legal instrument could have dangerous repercussions for both freedom of expression and religion. Language used by Pakistan, writing on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, to describe the breadth of a new mechanism is particularly chilling in the limits it places on freedom of thought, discussion, and belief by imposing overbroad limitations that far exceed current international accepted standards. According to the submitted statement, the proposed instrument would include:

“Legal prohibition of publication of material that negatively stereotypes, insults, or uses offensive language on matters regarded by followers of any religion or belief as sacred or inherent to their dignity as human beings.”

We fear that a new legal instrument allowing states to outlaw speech according to what they deem offensive could be subject to misuse, empowering governments to suppress the views of minority religious groups, or dissenters within a majority religion. Robust debate often entails speech that is offensive to some; this is the nature of disagreement.

Moreover, such language protecting religious beliefs themselves, rather than the people who hold those beliefs, undermines the entire basis of international human rights laws, which are designed to protect people and not ideas.

We believe there are numerous other, more appropriate, avenues for addressing racial and religious hatred. In particular, we encourage greater support for the existing Special Rapporteurs for Religious Freedom, Racial Discrimination, and Freedom of Expression, each of whom operates with an explicit mandate to focus on those issues.

We also emphasize that effective combating of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance does not necessitate the creation of new legal norms—there are non-legal responses that can be employed, such as sharing new guidelines or best practices among countries and organizations. This could lead to a robust dialogue that we believe better addresses the real problem of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religious belief.

In a joint statement on April 22, 2009, the Special Rapporteurs for Religious Freedom, Racial Discrimination, and Freedom of Expression made a similar argument. They pointed out, “Legal responses, such as restrictions on freedom of expression alone, are far from being sufficient to bring about real changes in mindsets, perceptions and discourse…

More speech can be the best strategy to reach out to individuals’ hearts and minds, changing what they think and not merely what they do.”

Thank you for your attention to this very important issue.


UN Watch

Freedom House
United States
Adil Soz – International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Africa Free Media Trust

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
United States

Association of Caribbean Media Workers Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CFMR)
Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP)

Centre for Political Studies (CEPOS)


Darfur Peace and Development Centre

Endeavour Forum, Inc.

Environmental Protection Society

Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association

European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, University of Graz

Exiled Journalists’ Network
United Kingdom

Greek Helsinki Monitor

Himalayan Research and Cultural Foundation

Initiative for Freedom of Expression

Indonesia Legal Resource Center

Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace

Instituto Prensa y Sociedad

International Humanist and Ethical Union
United Kingdom

Leimena Institute

Maharat Foundation

Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance

Media Foundation of West Africa (MFWAA)
Media Institute for Southern Africa

Media Rights Agenda

Media Watch

Montagnard Foundation
United States

National Union of Somali Journalists

Pacific Freedom Forum
American Samoa

Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms
Palestinian Territories

Tifa Foundation

Wahid Institute

World Union of Progressive Judaism

World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)


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