U.S. fights Is­lamic anti-defama­tion push in UN

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective -

UNITED NA­TIONS | The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, Euro­pean gov­ern­ments and re­li­gious rights or­ga­ni­za­tions are mount­ing a new ef­fort to de­feat a Gen­eral As­sem­bly res­o­lu­tion that de­mands re­spect for Is­lam and other re­li­gions but has been used to jus­tify per­se­cu­tion of re­li­gious mi­nori­ties.

The res­o­lu­tion, called “Com­bat­ing Defama­tion of Re­li­gion,” is spon­sored by the 57-na­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the Is­lamic Con­fer­ence (OIC) and has been ap­proved by the world body an­nu­ally since 2005. It comes up for re­newal this fall.

U.S. of­fi­cials said they hope to per­suade moderate Mus­lim na­tions — among them Sene­gal, Mali, Nige­ria and In­done­sia — to re­ject the mea­sure, which lacks the force of law but has pro­vided diplo­matic cover for regimes that re­press crit­i­cal speech. The of­fi­cials spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the topic.

Re­li­gious rights groups say other U.N. mea­sures, in­clud­ing state­ments by the Hu­man Rights Coun­cil in Geneva, repli­cate the lan­guage of the res­o­lu­tion.

“Be­fore, it was one res­o­lu­tion with no im­pact and no im­ple­men­ta­tion,” said Felice Gaer, chair­man of the U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom, a bi­par­ti­san fed­eral body that in­ves­ti­gates abuses and pro­poses poli­cies to ad­vance “free­dom of thought, con­science and re­li­gion.”

“Now we are see­ing a clear at­tempt by OIC coun­tries to main­stream the con­cept and in­sert it into just about ev­ery other topic they can,” Miss Gaer said. “They are turn­ing free­dom of ex­pres­sion into re­stric­tion of ex­pres­sion.”

Euro­pean gov­ern­ments are also con­cerned.

The Euro­pean Cen­ter for Law and Jus­tice filed a brief with the U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights in June warn­ing that such anti-defama­tion reso­lu­tions “are in di­rect vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law con­cern­ing the rights to free­dom of re­li­gion and ex­pres­sion.”

U.S. of­fi­cials work­ing on hu­man rights said the reso­lu­tions are be­ing used to jus­tify harsh blas­phemy laws in coun­tries such as Pak­istan, Egypt, Su­dan and Afghanistan.

The OIC said most of the lan­guage in the Com­bat­ing Defama­tion of Re­li­gion res­o­lu­tion has been used in con­ven­tions on cul­tural and civil rights, the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights, and reso­lu­tions to com­bat racism.

The densely worded doc­u­ment is meant to safe­guard re­li­gious ideas and al­low re­li­gious mi­nori­ties to lead “a life of re­spect [. . . ] free of co­er­cion, fear or threat,” the OIC of­fice in Geneva told The Wash­ing­ton Times in an e-mail. The of­fice noted that U.N. hu­man rights rap­por­teurs have been re­port­ing an in­crease in the num­ber and in­ten­sity of “raciore­li­gious” dis­crim­i­na­tion.

In­ci­dents cited in­clude re­marks last year about Is­lam by Pope Bene­dict XVI, the pub­li­ca­tion of car­toons in Dan­ish news­pa­pers that con­tained un­flat­ter­ing im­ages of the prophet Muham­mad and re­li­gious rul­ings is­sued against icon­o­clas­tic Mus­lim writ­ers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sal­man Rushdie.

The most re­cent ver­sion of the anti-defama­tion res­o­lu­tion, passed by the world body in De­cem­ber, cites the er­ro­neous con­nec­tion of Is­lam to ter­ror­ism and “stresses the need to ef­fec­tively com­bat defama­tion of all re­li­gions and in­cite­ment to re­li­gious ha­tred, against Is­lam and Mus­lims in par­tic­u­lar.”

The text also takes aim at the USA Patriot Act, ex­press­ing alarm at un­named laws that “specif­i­cally dis­crim­i­nate against and tar­get Mus­lims [. . . ] fol­low­ing the events of 11 Septem­ber 2001.”

The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and Euro­pean gov­ern­ments warn that the res­o­lu­tion — which specif­i­cally men­tions Is­lam but no other re­li­gions — is an Or­wellian text that has been used to shut down free speech.

The res­o­lu­tion “re­places the ex­ist­ing ob­jec­tive cri­te­rion of lim­i­ta­tions on speech where there is an in­tent to in­cite ha­tred or vi­o­lence against re­li­gious be­liev­ers with a sub­jec­tive cri­te­rion that con­sid­ers whether the re­li­gion or its be­liev­ers feel of­fended by the speech,” said the brief by the Euro­pean Cen­ter for Law and Jus­tice.

“In cases we’ve mon­i­tored, it’s mi­nor­ity re­li­gions — Chris­tians, Baha’i, and non-con­form­ing Mus­lims” — who are most at risk, Miss Gaer said. “Peo­ple who want to in­ter­pret their re­li­gion dif­fer­ently than some of the more or­tho­dox cler­ics would.”

“This [lan­guage] desta­bi­lizes the whole hu­man rights sys­tem,” said An­gela Wu, in­ter­na­tional law di­rec­tor for the Becket Fund for Re­li­gious Lib­erty, a pub­lic in­ter­est law firm in Wash­ing­ton. “It em­pow­ers the state rather than in­di­vid­ual, and pro­tects ideas rather than the per­son who holds them.”

Stephen Su­ley­man Schwartz, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Is­lamic Plu­ral­ism, crit­i­cized the reso­lu­tions but dis­missed con­cerns that they will pave the way for more blas­phemy laws.

“The right to crit­i­cize a re­li­gion is a fun­da­men­tal right” that is even men­tioned in the Ko­ran, he said re­cently. “In my view, the OIC is mov­ing in a lib­eral and re­formist di­rec­tion” closer to Euro­pean hate speech laws than ex­trem­ist blas­phemy laws.

The OIC lead­er­ship has been meet­ing with Euro­pean and other West­ern diplo­mats to try to re­solve the is­sue, said Ab­dul Wahab, the OIC am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions in New York.

“We want to build con­sen­sus for this res­o­lu­tion, be­cause it will ben­e­fit all, and it is im­por­tant,” Mr. Wahab told The Times. “But of course we can have a vote, if nec­es­sary.”

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