U.N. Human Rights Council Moves Away From ‘Dangerous’ Defamation of Religion Concept

March 25, 2011 - 4:08 AM

Insult Muslims

“Kill those who insult Mohammed,” reads a banner at a protest by Pakistani Muslims in Lahore on Wednesday, May 19, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

(CNSNews.com) – Revulsion at Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the murder this year of two leading opponents of those laws may have dealt a final blow to the Islamic world’s controversial “religious defamation” campaign at the United Nations.

In a significant development in Geneva late Thursday, the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted, by consensus, a resolution on combating intolerance based on religion.

Unlike similar measures in previous years, the resolution dropped altogether the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)’s cherished concept of “defamation” of religions, and it dropped all direct references to Islam.

It also did not, as was the case with previous texts, promote legal restrictions on peaceful free expression – although it did call on countries to adopt “measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.”

It was the first time since 1999 that the U.N.’s top human rights body – either the HRC or its now defunct predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights – has not adopted an annual OIC-sponsored defamation resolution.

The annual resolution also has been adopted by the full U.N. General Assembly every year since 2005.

In both the HRC and General Assembly, support for the resolution has been eroding in recent years, amid an escalating counter-campaign by religious freedom, free speech and other Christian and secular advocacy groups, some of which describe it as a “global blasphemy law.” While people can be defamed, critics say, religions cannot be.

In the most recent vote, at the General Assembly last December, the OIC resolution passed by a margin of just 12 votes – down from 57 in 2007.

With each year’s dwindling support, the OIC has tried to stem the erosion by softening the language – limiting the number of references to Islam and inserting terms like “Judeophobia” and “Christianophobia” alongside “Islamophobia.” Drafters also removed references to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Earlier versions spoke of discrimination against “Muslim minorities following the events of 11 September 2001.”)

But on Thursday, for the first time, the “defamation” concept was abandoned altogether.

Some critics of the OIC’s campaign linked the development directly to the assassinations earlier this year of the only Christian in Pakistan’s federal cabinet and a Muslim state governor, both opponents of the country’s blasphemy laws.

Pakistan blasphemy laws

Pakistani Christians protest the killing of Christian government minister Shahbaz Bhatti, in Karachi on Thursday, March 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

The murder of Minorities Minister Shabhaz Bhatti and Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer escalated a long-simmering crisis over the laws, which make insults aimed at Mohammed and the Qur’an crimes punishable by death.

Not only did the blasphemy issue become headline news around the world, but the open celebrations of the assassinations and feting of the killers by mainstream Muslim factions raised troubling questions about Pakistan’s claims to be a “moderate” Muslim country.

Pakistan’s representative at the HRC in early March urged the international community not to link Bhatti’s killing to the “defamation” issue, although the fact that Pakistan has spearheaded by OIC’s drive at the U.N. since 1999 has not helped Islamabad’s case.

‘Concern over Pakistan deaths a catalyst for change’

Earlier this month the advocacy group Human Rights First invited Shehrbano Taseer, daughter of the slain Punjab governor, to address a panel in Geneva on religious defamation and the abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

Human Rights First called Thursday’s move “an important shift away from efforts at the U.N. to create an international blasphemy code.”

“The consensus behind today’s resolution should put the divisive debates on defamation of religions behind us,” said Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke.

“Instead, states need to do more to adopt measures to combat violence and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, as well as address religious hatred without restricting speech.”

Human Rights First attributed the shift to factors including the waning support at the HRC and General Assembly for the annual OIC resolution.

“Furthermore, the recent assassinations of Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minister Shabhaz Bhatti in Pakistan, as well as the outbreaks of mob violence in Indonesia, have all directly related to the existence of national blasphemy laws – heightened already existing concerns about the abuse of these laws,” Stahnke said.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, another opponent of the defamation resolutions, also welcomed the development.

“It has seemed for some time that the tide was shifting on this issue but we are encouraged that this new resolution is so explicit in affirming the importance – and complementary nature – of freedom of religion and freedom of expression,” said the group’s spokesman, Matthew Jones.

“There was also a strong indication at recent U.N. meetings that a catalyst for the change may have been the domestic and global concern over Taseer and Bhatti’s assassinations and increasing worldwide realization of the negative effects of blasphemy laws.”

‘Eliminate blasphemy laws’

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Thursday’s move a “landmark achievement” but said it “must be followed by sustained commitment.”

“At a time when violence and discrimination against members of religious minorities is all too common, we urge the international community to continue to uphold the freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” she said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called the step away from the “dangerous” religious defamation concept significant.

“The efforts over the past several years by USCIRF, the State Department, Congress, and a broad coalition of NGOs helped bring about a steady loss of support both in Geneva and New York for the defamation resolutions,” it said in a statement.

It praised Clinton and the State Department as well as lawmakers who had led efforts against religious defamation, singling out Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.).

“Thanks to these efforts, and those of previous administrations and Congresses, more countries each year voted against the defamation of religions concept because they understood that blasphemy laws increase intolerance and violence,” said USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo.

“Tragically, it took the assassinations of two prominent Pakistani officials who opposed that country’s draconian blasphemy laws … to convince the OIC that the annual defamation of religions resolutions embolden extremists rather than bolster religious harmony.”

“What is needed now is for countries, such as Pakistan, that have blasphemy laws to eliminate them,” Leo said.

Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government has assured Islamic organizations that it has no plans to amend the laws.

A recent Human Rights First report documented more than 70 cases in 15 countries where the enforcement of blasphemy laws led to death sentences and lengthy prison terms, and sparked assaults, murders, and mob attacks.

Most of the incidents were in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, but the report also included a case in which an Austrian woman was convicted in February on a charge of “denigrating the teachings of a legally recognized religion,” after giving lectures on Islam that were critical of jihad and the treatment of women, and said Mohammed would today be considered as a pedophile.

According to an authoritative Hadith – the traditions and sayings of Mohammed – the middle-aged prophet’s marriage to the youngest of his 12 wives, Aisha, was consummated when the girl was nine years old (see Vol. 7, Book 62, No. 64).