U.N. Adopts ‘Religious Intolerance’ Resolution Championed by Obama Administration

December 20, 2011 - 5:32 AM

UN flags

Flags of member nations flying at United Nations headquarters in New York City. (U.N. Photo by Araujo Pinto)

(CNSNews.com) – The U.N. General Assembly on Monday adopted a resolution condemning the stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatization of people based on their religion, and urging countries to take effective steps “to address and combat such incidents.”

No member state called for a recorded vote on the text, which was as a result adopted “by consensus.”

The resolution, an initiative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), is based on one passed by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva last spring. The State Department last week hosted a meeting to discuss ways of “implementing” it.

Every year since 1999 the OIC has steered through the U.N.’s human rights apparatus a resolution condemning the “defamation of religion,” which for the bloc of 56 Muslim states covered incidents ranging from satirizing Mohammed in a newspaper cartoon to criticism of shari’a and post-9/11 security check profiling.

Critics regard the measure as an attempt to outlaw valid and critical scrutiny of Islamic teachings, as some OIC states do through controversial blasphemy laws at home.

Strongly opposed by mostly Western democracies, the divisive “defamation” resolution received a dwindling number of votes each year, with the margin of success falling from 57 votes in 2007 to 19 in 2009 and just 12 last year.

This year’s text was a departure, in that it dropped the “defamation” language and included a paragraph that reaffirms “the positive role that the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the full respect for the freedom to seek, receive and impart information can play in strengthening democracy and combating religious intolerance.”

The nod to freedom of expression won the resolution the support of the U.S. and other democracies, with the Obama administration and others hailing it as a breakthrough after years of acrimonious debate.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the opportunity of the State Department-hosted talks with foreign governments, the OIC and other international bodies last week to stress the importance of freedom of speech in the U.S. She argued that “the best way to treat offensive speech is by people either ignoring it or combating it with good arguments and good speech that overwhelms it.”

Saudi initiative singled out for praise

Nonetheless, the resolution adopted in New York on Monday does contain elements that concern some free speech and religious freedom advocates.

It calls on states “to take effective measures to ensure that public functionaries in the conduct of their public duties do not discriminate against an individual on the basis of religion or belief.”

Governments also are expected to make “a strong effort to counter religious profiling, which is understood to be the invidious use of religion as a criterion in conducting questionings, searches and other law enforcement investigative procedures.”

“Effective measures” to counter cases of religious stereotyping and stigmatization include education, interfaith dialogue and “training of government officials.”

And in the worst cases, those of “incitement to imminent violence” based on religion, the resolution calls on countries to implement “measures to criminalize” such behavior.

Also of note is the fact that the resolution singles out for praise only one interfaith initiative – and that initiative was established by Saudi Arabia, a leading OIC member-state with a long history of enforcing blasphemy laws.

The resolution commends the establishment of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, “acknowledging the important role that the Centre is expected to play as a platform for the enhancement of interreligious and intercultural dialogue.”

(Another clause welcomes “all international, regional and national initiatives aimed at promoting interreligious, intercultural and interfaith harmony and combating discrimination against individuals on the basis of religion or belief,” but the Saudi one alone is recognized specifically.)

Monday’s adoption of the text took place without a debate. Earlier, when a General Assembly committee considered the draft resolution, a delegate of Poland – speaking on behalf of the European Union – raised concern about the fact it mentioned by name only one center for interreligious dialogue, even though there were numerous such facilities around the world.

The E.U. was also concerned that the resolution considered the world as “monolithic religious blocs,” while religious hatred was primarily a threat to individual freedoms, he said.

Despite those concerns, the E.U. was prepared to join consensus and support the resolution.

The U.S. representative, John Sammis, said the United States was pleased to join the consensus.

It had been unable to support previous resolutions of this type because they sought to restrict expression and were “counterproductive,” he said, but the new one upholds respect for universal human rights.

“The United States welcomes all international, national, and regional initiatives that respect universal human rights and that recommend these types of measures to promote interfaith harmony and combating discrimination against individuals on the basis of religion or belief,” Sammis said. “Such initiatives can promote respect for religious diversity in a manner that respects universal human rights.”