Civil rights activists criticise UN religious defamation resolution

By staff writers
September 2, 2008

Civil rights organisations, advocates of religious freedom, anti-censorship groups and government in Europe and beyond are expressing alarm at a United Nations General Assembly resolution that demands respect for religion but which critics say has been used to justify suppression of religious minorities.

Some say that it is in danger of becoming a "global blasphemy law" by stealth.

The resolution, "Combating Defamation of Religion," is sponsored by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and has been approved by the world body annually since 2005. It comes up for renewal later in 2008.

There are hopes that some Muslim nations - among them Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and Indonesia - will reject the measure, which lacks the force of law but has provided diplomatic cover for regimes that wish to deny speech critical of them

Civil and religious rights organisations say that other United Nations measures, including statements by the Human Rights Council in Geneva, are increasingly replicating the language of the resolution and confusing the human rights agenda.

"Before, it was one resolution with no impact and no implementation," said Felice Gaer, chair of the US 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."

The European Centre for Law and Justice filed a brief with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2008 warning that such anti-defamation resolutions "are in direct violation of international law concerning the rights to freedom of religion and expression."

There is widespread concern that the resolutions are being used to justify harsh blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan and Afghanistan.

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