The National Secular Society, together with the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has been working over the past year to try to raise the alarm about the concerted efforts by Islamic groups to write blasphemy laws into international human rights legislation.
Our efforts seem to be paying off, as other countries and organisations begin to appreciate the profound dangers to free speech posed by proposals from the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).
The OIC has sponsored a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council entitled “Combating Defamation of Religion.” It has been approved by the UNHRC every year since 2005, and is coming up for renewal in the next couple of months.
But at last the United States and various human rights organisations have woken up to the fact that the OIC resolution is actually an attempt to make “defamation of religion” (and in particular Islam) into an international offence. “Defamation of religion” is a wide ranging concept and can be used to silence any criticism of Islam.
Now U.S. officials have said they hope to persuade “moderate Muslim nations” “” among them Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and Indonesia “” to reject the measure, which so far lacks the force of law but has provided diplomatic cover for regimes that repress critical speech. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Religious rights groups say other U.N. measures, including statements by the Human Rights Council in Geneva, replicate the language of the resolution.
“Before, it was one resolution with no impact and no implementation,” said Felice Gaer, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal body that investigates abuses and proposes policies to advance freedom of thought, conscience and religion. “Now we are seeing a clear attempt by OIC countries to mainstream the concept and insert it into just about every other topic they can,” Miss Gaer said. “They are turning freedom of expression into restriction of expression.”
European governments are also concerned. The European Centre for Law and Justice filed a brief with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in June warning that such anti-defamation resolutions “are in direct violation of international law concerning the rights to freedom of religion and expression.”
U.S. officials working on human rights said the resolutions are being used to justify harsh blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan and Afghanistan.
The American and European governments warn that the resolution “” which specifically mentions Islam but no other religions “” is “an Orwellian text” that has been used to shut down free speech.
The resolution “replaces the existing objective criterion of limitations on speech where there is an intent to incite hatred or violence against religious believers with a subjective criterion that considers whether the religion or its believers feel offended by the speech,” said the brief by the European Centre for Law and Justice. “In cases we”ve monitored, it’s minority religions “” Christians, Baha”i, and non-conforming Muslims” “” who are most at risk, Miss Gaer said. “People who want to interpret their religion differently than some of the more orthodox clerics would.”
“This [language] destabilises the whole human rights system,” said Angela Wu, international law director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm in Washington. “It empowers the state rather than individual, and protects ideas rather than the person who holds them.”
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, who has been particularly active in raising awareness in international forums of the dangers of the OIC resolution, said: “It is gratifying that others are at last taking on board the dire threat the OIC proposals pose to free expression. If they are approved and gain some kind of legal credence, we can expect to see prosecutions for blasphemy (or “defamation of religions” as it will be called) all over the world. The Islamist desire to stop all open discussion of Islam will have been achieved.