x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

UN resolution on religious defamation still controversial

Attempt to protect religions from ridicule is likely to succeed with the slimmest margin of support in its 11-year history.

NEW YORK // Its supporters say it would protect Islam from ridicule. Detractors say it would curb free speech and provide a cover for hard-line governments to clamp down on religious minorities.

The UN General Assembly will soon vote on the controversial resolution, called "combating defamation of religions" which, while expected to pass once again, is likely to succeed with the slimmest margin of support in its 11-year history

Outlawing attacks on religion was popular in 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but support has waned since then.

The cartoon controversy dragged on as 111 nations from the 192-member General Assembly voted for the same resolution in 2006, with 54 against and 18 abstentions. About 75 countries are expected to support the non-binding document during this month's annual UN voting session.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which has promoted the concept of religious defamation in the UN since 1999, said Muslim-majority nations will not abandon the resolution anytime soon.

"We insist that freedom of expression should not be abused to insult others or condescend on other cultures," he said in an interview. "This is the bottom line and we insist on this: dignity and honour are human rights.

"Every country has certain values that it considers sacred values. It can be their king, queen or flag that are the red lines. For us 1.5 billion people, our Prophet is a red line, and we ask others to respect that."

Proponents link the resolution to concerns over Islamophobia, pointing to the deaths of 7,000 Muslims in Bosnia in 1995, the anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders and European bans on burqas and minarets.

The 56-nation OIC bloc has traditionally found support in Africa and non-aligned countries, but a growing number of Latin American states have turned against the concept in recent years and joined the long-standing opponents in Europe and North America. The UAE supports the resolution.

Since 2008, the resolution has passed with only a plurality, with the number of countries voting in favour exceeded by the combined number of those voting against and those abstaining.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, last month reiterated the United States' position that protecting religions encourages laws against free speech that stifle debate. "The US joins in all nations coming together to condemn hateful speech. But we do not support the banning of that speech," she said.

A noisy campaign has seen Freedom House's advocacy chief, Paula Schriefer, call the resolution "pernicious" and Leonard Leo, chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), accuse the OIC of trying to "fool delegations" with cosmetic changes to how the resolution is worded.

Critics say it gives rights to ideas, rather than the individuals who hold them, and allows repressive regimes to define theological views and persecute religious minorities with blasphemy laws. Existing race-hate laws are sufficient, they say.

They point to the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother in Pakistan who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam following a row with Muslim labourers over whether she was clean enough to touch a bowl of water.

Freedom House's recent study, Policing Belief, said the UN resolution provides a basis in international law for domestic blasphemy laws that have led to prosecutions in the Muslim world against adherents of minority faiths, including Islamic sects such as Ahmadis and Sufis.

Ashley McGuire, a researcher for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty,a Washington-based public interest law firm that works to protect the free expression of all religious traditions, said: "Countries are starting to understand what it is they are voting for and realising that the words 'defamation of religion' are not just a touchy-feely phrase but actually have implications for their country and other countries' domestic laws."

Ms McGuire detects a change in tone from some western leaders who, while maintaining hard-line positions on freedom of speech, have become less provocative on matters of faith and "more aware of the sensitivity of the Muslim community".

The anti-defamation resolution peaked in popularity after the cartoon crisis and a controversial speech by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, but has lost ground since the US president, Barack Obama, promised "a new beginning" to a Cairo audience last year.

While several European newspapers re-published the Danish cartoons in 2006 to assert that free speech trumps religious protectionism, the more recent plan of a Christian pastor to host "Burn a Quran Day" in Florida was swiftly denounced.

Elizabeth Cassidy, a USCIRF analyst, said the response of Mr Obama, who called the Quran-burning a "recruitment bonanza for al Qa'eda" in September, shows how religious sensibilities can be protected without recourse to legislation.

While the anti-defamation resolution is expected to pass at the General Assembly this month, campaigners are now focussed on a counterpart OIC document expected to be submitted before the UN Human Rights Council in March. Prospects for the 47-member UN body adopting the resolution are even slimmer, and some analysts predict a tactical OIC withdrawal to avert defeat.

jreinl@thenational.ae