United Nations Correspondent
NEW YORK // When the UN Human Rights Council recently adopted a resolution to promote religious tolerance, it marked the end of a long, often bitter dispute that pitted Muslim nations against the West and the freedom of speech against the desire to protect a religion from insult.
For more than a decade, UN bodies have adopted resolutions backed by the main organisation representing the Muslim world, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), containing demands to combat religious defamation.
Last Thursday, however, the resolution brought by the OIC contained no reference to defaming religions and as a result was supported by the United States and the European Union.
The change in wording represents a switch in focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers and calls for "combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief".
Since 1999, the OIC, a bloc of 57 nations, had won majority approval in the council and at the United Nations General Assembly for a series of resolutions on "combating defamation of religion". The OIC had argued that Islam and other faiths needed UN legal safeguards to discourage hate crimes and discrimination against Muslims.
But critics said the concept of religious defamation afforded rights to ideas, rather than individuals, and allowed autocrats to define theological views and stifle dissent.
The adoption of resolution was welcomed by both sides. Washington's UN ambassador, Susan Rice, praised an "important step away from the deeply problematic concept of defamation of religion".
Her OIC counterpart, Ufuk Gokcen, said consensus would "challenge the increasing trend of Islamophobia".
"I believe that the resolution on which there is consensus and mutual understanding serves our interest by showing a road map to tackle the challenge - stereotyping, misunderstanding and discrimination that is based on religion and belief," he said.
Support in UN ballots for the OIC's religious defamation resolutions peaked in 2006, after newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed appeared in a Danish newspaper and Pope Benedict XVI's citation of a medieval critique of Islam during a theological speech at Regensburg University.
But support waned in recent years and, since 2008, anti-defamation resolutions passed in UN bodies without an overall majority, but the combined number of countries abstaining and voting against exceeded the number of those voting in favour.
But the OIC said deeply-held faith beliefs should be protected by UN resolutions. The organisation said the resolutions were needed to fight a global wave of Islamophobia, particularly after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Opposition came from the US and EU members, who voted against the annual OIC resolutions in UN bodies, saying they would curb free speech and help hard-line regimes use anti-blasphemy laws against religious minorities.
Although decisions by the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly are not legally binding, they set a global ethical standard and basis for domestic laws, with "religious defamation" fitting into anti-blasphemy codes in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Pamela Takiff, an analyst for Human Rights First, said the OIC policy shift was in response to the assassinations of two Pakistani officials earlier this year who had criticised their country's blasphemy laws, which she said are used against Christians and other minorities.
The US-based pressure group argued that the UN anti-defamation resolution had devastating consequences in the real world. The "writing was on the wall" said Ms Takiff, because the OIC faced an embarrassing UN defeat if the new resolution had referred to religious defamation.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said Washington accepted the text of the new resolution, which was adopted by consensus, because it did "not limit freedom of expression or infringe on the freedom of religion". She praised a "constructive and affirmative" mood in Geneva.
Shehrbano Taseer, daughter of the provincial Pakistani governor, Salman Taseer, who was shot dead by a bodyguard in apparent retribution for his liberal attitude on blasphemy laws, warned that real change will take time.
"We still have challenges ahead," said Ms Taseer. "I am unsure as to how this will affect Pakistan's cruel blasphemy laws. The clerics dictate to the parliament over here, unfortunately, and it may be a long time before the trickle-down effect reaches Pakistan."
Juliette de Rivero, a UN expert for Human Rights Watch, said Geneva's dynamics have changed against the backdrop of pro-democracy protests in the Muslim world that challenge decades of authoritarian rule.
"Previously, we were unable to have meaningful discussion on these issues because we were caught up in the east-west ideological divide," she said. "My hope is that we can now start focusing on real issues of common concern and the suffering of victims."