Friday, 24 July 2009

Blasphemy - or Freedom of Speech?

Islamic nations' "defamation of religion" ambitions make progress at UN
A coalition of 57 Islamic countries — the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) — this week won United Nations backing for a draft resolution that would outlaw "defamation of religion" throughout the world.
The resolution was passed 85 votes for to 50 against with 42 abstentions in a key UN committee, and will enter into the international record after an expected rubber stamp by the plenary later in the year. It is non-binding, but regarded as another step in a long-term strategy by the OIC to make anti-blasphemy laws mandatory in all countries.
Campaigners against the OIC's campaign say that it poses a severe threat to freedom of speech. Bennett Graham of the Becket Fund said: "It provides international cover for domestic anti-blasphemy laws, and there are a number of people who are in prison today because they have been accused of committing blasphemy. Those arrests are made legitimate by the UN body's (effective) stamp of approval."
Passage of the resolution is part of a 10-year action plan the 57-state Organization of the Islamic Conference launched in 2005 to ensure "renaissance" of the "Muslim Ummah" or community.
While the current resolution is non-binding, Pakistan's Ambassador Masood Khan reminded the UN's Human Rights Council this year that the OIC ultimately seeks a "new instrument or convention" on the issue. Such a measure would impose its terms on signatory states.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based monitoring group UN Watch, which also opposes the resolution said: "Each time the resolution comes up, we get a measure of where the world is on this issue, and we see that the campaign has been ramped up."
While this year's draft is less Islam-centric than resolutions of earlier years, analysts note it is more emphatic in linking defamation of religion and incitement to violence. That "risks limiting a broad range of peaceful speech and expression," Mr. Neuer said.
The 2008 draft "underscores the need to combat defamation of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general, by strategizing and harmonizing actions at the local, national regional and international levels." It also claims "Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism."
But Western nations — in particular Canada — insist that ideas, such as religion, cannot be protected by human rights legislation. They say that human rights are for humans. They have no objection to the protection of

individuals from discrimination on the basis of their religion, but are adamant that religious ideas must remain open to debate and criticism.
The United States told the UN High Commissioner: "Defamation carries a particular legal meaning and application in domestic systems that makes the term wholly unsuitable in the context of religions. A defamatory statement ... is more than just an offensive one. It is also a statement that is false."
"From the human rights side of things, this is the opposite of what is supposed to be happening," said Becket's Mr. Graham. "Instead of protecting an individual, this resolution protects an idea, and relies on hurt feelings as a source of judgment. It can only lead to a jurisprudence of hurt feelings."
Canada says governments have abused laws against defamation or contempt of religions to "prosecute and imprison journalists, bloggers, academics students and peaceful political dissidents."
The Iranian parliament, for example, is currently considering a draft amendment to its penal code that would impose capital punishment for apostasy. But in an irony, given Canada's stance, an anti-blasphemy law remains in the country's own Criminal Code. Experts point out, however, that it has not been used for a prosecution for more than 70 years.

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