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Latest UN Resolution on "Defamation" of Religions Strikes another Blow to Fundamental Freedoms
The latest UN Third Committee resolution urging all countries to create legal and constitutional systems to prevent "incitement to religious hatred," strikes another blow to fundamental freedoms of expression and belief.
By a vote of 85 to 50, with 42 abstentions, the UN Third Committee yesterday adopted a draft resolution that calls on countries to create legal mechanisms to prevent "acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions." The resolution is intended to prevent stereotyping, speech, and actions deemed degrading to all religions, although, as with past resolutions, it singles out only Islam and Muslims by name as targets of "an overall campaign of defamation of religions."
"Yesterday’s resolution is just the latest in a series of resolutions put forward by the Organization of the Islamic Conference that attempt to equate the right of an individual to hold and express certain beliefs with the right of a belief itself to be free from criticism," said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House. "These attempts are both misguided and dangerous. If we are to achieve greater understanding and tolerance among all faiths, no topics can be deemed off limits for discussion."
The term "defamatory" is ill-defined and can be used within the UN system to limit human rights discussions that deal with legitimate issues such as children’s rights, women's rights, reproductive rights, the rights of religious minorities, or the rights of individuals to choose their own religion. Earlier this year, President of the Human Rights Council Doru Romulus Costea ruled that religion could not be discussed at the Council following repeated objections by Egypt to an intervention criticizing the stoning to death of women accused of adultery and of girls being married at the age of nine years old in certain countries where Sharia law applies.
The passage of anti-defamation laws are also used to justify limits on free expression within countries, where individuals are arrested or persecuted for criticizing and even questioning views, particularly those commonly accepted by the population of the religious majority. In Egypt, bloggers are arrested for posting criticisms of Islam. In Pakistan, defiling Islam is punishable by death and insulting another’s religious feelings can result in a ten-year prison sentence. In Saudi Arabia, all Saudis are required by law to be Muslim.
"While it may seem a natural response to decry the idea of defaming one’s religious beliefs, the implications of doing so present a great danger. One must ask who is responsible for deciding what is defamatory?" said Schriefer. "It’s no coincidence that countries with the worst records for respecting the fundamental freedoms of expression, religion and association—including Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan—are those that continue to sponsor these resolutions within the UN system."
The first "anti-defamation" resolution was presented before the UN Commission on Human Rights by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1999 to counter a perceived increase in anti-Islamic intolerance. Similar resolutions, which were expanded to decry the defamation of all religions, continued to pass in the Commission and its successor, the Human Rights Council, each year. The most recent vote at the Third Committee, in which far more countries either voted against or abstained, demonstrates a decline in support for such resolutions. The resolution is scheduled to come up for a vote at the UN General Assembly next month.
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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.