U.N. Passes Religious ‘Defamation’ Resolution Sponsored by Islamic Nations, But Support Dwindles

Patrick Goodenough | December 22, 2010 | 5:17am EST
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Flags of member nations flying at United Nations headquarters in New York City. (U.N. Photo by Araujo Pinto)

(Update: Adds details of countries that shifted positions this year, plus reaction from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom)

(CNSNews.com) – For the sixth consecutive year, the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday passed a controversial resolution on religious “defamation” sponsored by Islamic nations, but this time, the measure passed by a mere 12 votes.

Lobbying by a broad range of religious freedom and other groups has steadily eroded the vote tally for the resolution each year since 2006, but outright defeat of the measure sponsored by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) remains elusive.

Tuesday’s vote in the 192-member General Assembly passed by 79 votes to 67, with 40 abstentions.

A comparison of voting records provides an indication of which countries were successfully lobbied since last year, when the vote passed 80-61, with 42 abstentions.

The six additional “no” votes in 2010 came from Barbados (which voted for the resolution last year); Argentina, Bahamas, Fiji and Zambia (all of which abstained last year); and the Solomon Islands (which did not vote last year).

One country, Dominica, voted for the OIC resolution in 2009 and abstained this year. Haiti moved the other way, abstaining last year and voting for the measure in 2010.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body that advises the executive and legislative branches, welcomed the continued decline in support for the “defamation” resolution.

“Each year, more and more countries are recognizing that laws allegedly protecting religions from ‘defamation’ or criticism actually increase intolerance and human rights violations, instead of reducing these problems,” USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo said Wednesday.

“This resolution seeks to divide the international community, rather than building consensus on ways to promote fundamental freedoms,” he added. “Religious intolerance is best fought through efforts to encourage respect for every individual’s human rights, not through national or international anti-blasphemy laws.”

Earlier this month a petition opposing the resolution, signed by 428,856 people from more than 70 countries, was handed to senior U.N. officials in New York City.

It was organized by the Christian religious freedom organization Open Doors USA, which said that the resolution “criminalizes speech and actions deemed to be against a religion.”

Although the OIC argues that the bill promotes tolerance and protects religious freedom, Open Doors said, “it does the exact opposite for Christians, other religious minorities and even Muslims who do not adhere to government-approved versions of Islam. In effect, the resolution is an international blasphemy law.”

The 56-country OIC says that Islam, its teachings and prophet Mohammed are being maligned through prejudice, ignorance or fear.

The OIC’s “Islamophobia Observatory” issues annual reports highlighting incidents such as the Mohammed newspaper cartoons, threats to burn copies of the Qur’an, the alleged profiling of Muslim passengers at airports in the West, and last month’s vote in Oklahoma to amend the state’s constitution to bar judges from considering Islamic law in Oklahoma courts.

OIC inserts ‘Judeophobia, Christianophobia’ into text

The OIC has introduced its religious “defamation” resolution at the General Assembly every year since 2005, and at the U.N.’s top human rights body every year since 1999, when Pakistan introduced it for the first time. It has passed in both forums every time, although with ever-dwindling support.

The 2006 and 2007 General Assembly resolutions passed by a 57-vote margin. That dropped to 33 in 2008, to 19 last year, and now down to 12.

In an attempt to stem that erosion of support, Islamic governments this time made changes to the text, including inserting the words “Islamophobia, Judeophobia and Christianophobia.” In previous versions Islam was the only religion referred to be name.

Among other changes, a mention of the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist assault on the U.S. was removed. (Earlier versions had referred to discrimination against “Muslim minorities following the events of 11 September 2001.”)

Also, the latest text minimized the use of the provocative term “defamation,” exchanging it in many instances with the word “vilification.”  The formal title of the resolution remained unchanged: “Combating Defamation of Religions.”

Also retained in the text was a sentence expressing “deep concern … that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.”

The run-up to this year’s vote saw attention drawn to a case in Pakistan involving a Christian woman on death row after being convicted of “blaspheming” Mohammed.

Asia Bibi was indicted under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, which makes insults aimed at Mohammed and the Qur’an crimes punishable by death.

Bibi is appealing her sentence, but the government and legal system are under pressure from Islamists angered by the notion that she may be acquitted or pardoned. One cleric has offered a reward to anyone who kills her.

Reacting to Tuesday’s U.N. vote, the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights First said Bibi’s case was not unique.

“There are scores of cases that provide ample warning of the dangers of enacting a global blasphemy law, which is what this U.N. resolution seeks to do,” it said.

A recent Human Rights First report documented more than 50 cases in 15 countries “where the enforcement of blasphemy laws have resulted in death sentences and long prison terms as well as arbitrary detentions, and have sparked assaults, murders, and mob attacks.”

Tad Stahnke of Human Rights First said Tuesday’s U.N. vote affirms the dwindling support for the religious “defamation” concept.

It was nonetheless “unfortunate for both individuals at risk whose rights will surely be violated under the guise of prohibiting ‘defamation of religions,’ as well as for the standards of international norms on freedom of expression,” he said.

Tuesday’s U.N. meetings did not take place in the usual General Assembly building, which was evacuated because of noxious odors caused by sewage problems attributed to unusually high tides in the East River. The session was moved to a temporary building nearby.

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