UN resolutions for combating defamation of religions
Posted on December 7th, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

(The fifth and last of my series of articles on religion and related issues.)

Indo-British novelist Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel ‘Satanic Verses’ (1988) and the so-called Muhammad cartoons published in the Danish liberal-conservative daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005 outraged many Muslims around the world and led to angry, frequently violent demonstrations and other forms of protest. Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the then supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa sentencing him to death for blasphemy against Islam. Several unsuccessful attempts were made on his life in consequence. In 1991, the Japanese translator of the book, Hitoshi Igarashi, was assassinated in connection with the same perceived offence. The Danish cartoonist was accused of insulting the founder of that religion, and the ambassadors of a number of Islamic countries urged the Danish authorities to take action against the alleged offender.

Now if the writer and the cartoonist actually meant to harm the good name of a religion by publishing malicious falsehoods about it or its founder or its believers, no civilized individual, community or country would approve of that. But in these cases only the Muslims believed that such an offence had been committed by the novelist and the cartoonist and were offended, while in the West the novel and the cartoons were received as products of the artists’ exercise of their right to freedom of thought and expression. So the two cases served to expose a stark difference between the secular Western democracies and the predominantly Muslim states everywhere in their attitudes towards direct expression or suggestion of independent views regarding their religion and its leader.

Sadly both these episodes happened more than a decade after the enforcement of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (adopted by General Assembly resolution in December 1966, and in force from March 1976 in terms of Article 49 of the same document). The ICCPR explicitly stated global agreement on the basic human rights of all. Articles 19 and 20 of the Covenant are specifically about the right to holding and expressing opinions:

Article 19

  1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
  2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
  3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Article 20

  1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.
  2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

Since 1999 a number of non-binding resolutions for ‘combating defamation of religions’ have been adopted at the UN. The concerned countries of the United Nations had eventually to revert to a position indicated by the above two articles in pacifying parties that were affected by instances of alleged acts of defamation of religions. During more than a decade of debate and discussion about the subject under the auspices of the UN, strangely, but also understandably, key concepts of the discussion such as religion, defamation and tolerance remained undefined. The reality is that these terms mean different things to different parties who are at loggerheads, which makes a consensual settlement of the matter to everybody’s satisfaction  almost impossible.

It was in April 1999 that a demand for a resolution against defaming a religion came before the UN’s Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). Pakistan presented to the Commission a resolution entitled ‘Defamation of Islam’ sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) which claimed that there was a concerted campaign to defame Islam. This title was later changed to ‘Defamation of Religions’. From then on almost every year until 2011, non-binding resolutions were passed against defamation of religions. But right from the beginning there was no consensus about these resolutions between Western countries and some nations of the developing world with predominantly Muslim populations. The former opposed such resolutions saying that they were equivalent to an international blasphemy law, that interfered with the freedoms of opinion and expression.

In 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was created to succeed the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). After UNHRC approval in that year, a resolution entitled ‘Combating Defamation of Religions’ was submitted to the General Assembly. It was adopted with 111 member countries voting for it, 54 against, and 18 abstentions. Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council, voted in favour of the resolution. The voting history of these non-binding UN resolutions against defamation of religions shows a steady decline in support for them among the UN members and a corresponding rise in the number of opponents and abstentions from 2006 to 2010. There emerged in 2011 a shift of concern from protecting beliefs to protecting believers, protection of whose rights being regarded as what really matters.

Western objectors to defamation combating resolutions justify themselves by emphasizing the crucial need for the protection of the human rights of all people. In terms of freedom of thought, conscience and religion that the UN recognizes as a basic human right, one has a right to profess a religion, to practice it, and even to change it. That the average faith systems restrict freedom of thought when applied to those systems themselves needs no elaboration. But in the multicultural society which is the norm today, realization of even religious freedom is not possible under a fundamentalist system, because, without the freedom of thought and speech, how can an individual change their religious identity or shed it altogether by asserting their fundamental human right to conscience and belief? It is a paradox that arises in this kind of controversy.

But this is something that is hardly recognized by the religious majority in the world. Finding fault with religion in general or with a particular system of religious belief is not politically correct. Those who dare do that are the irreligious (professing no religion) minority, but naturally they cannot influence the formulation of measures to resolve the defamation issue in a big way. However, the anti-religious few too must enjoy the same right to freedom of opinion and expression as the religious majority. When Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Doudou Diene opined (2007) that A growing anti-religious culture and rhetoric is a central source of defamation of all religions and discrimination against their believers and practitioners”, he was making a generalization that was probably both right and wrong, more wrong than right in fact. But Carlos Portales of Chile alerted the members to a potential danger posed by the anti-defamation resolution drive by observing at the UNHRC (2009) that: The concept of the defamation of religions took them in an area that could lead to the actual prohibition of opinions”.

Paragraph 48 (reproduced below) of  the 52-paragraph General Comment No. 34 (which is on Article 49 of the ICCPR which I have quoted above) that the UN Human Rights Committee issued speaks on behalf of all stakeholders in the ‘Combating defamation of religions’ controversy:

Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of article 19, paragraph 3, as well as such articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”

 As is well known, the UN Human Rights Committee comprises independent experts who monitor the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For better or for worse, and for the time being at least, they seem to have had the last word on the defamation of religions controversy.

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