The United Nations’ retreat from defending free expression is at odds with the concept of universal rights, says
This is the text of a talk delivered by Index on Censorship editor Jo Glanville at the Convention on Modern Liberty in London on 28 Feb 2009
I want to start by looking at two events which I think marked a turning point for free speech — and global attitudes towards it. Both happened last year — coincidentally at the same time.
First, in March, the UN Human Rights Council redefined the role of its special rapporteur on freedom of expression –– declaring that he should monitor abuses of the right to free expression when they form an act of racial or religious discrimination. This has insidiously turned the rapporteur into a potential enemy of the very human right he is supposed to defend: someone whose job is no longer simply to monitor abuses to free speech, but to consider that human right as itself an abuse. At the same time, the council passed a resolution, condemning what it called a ‘campaign of defamation of religions’ and calling on governments to take action.
That very same month, in fact just the day before the resolution on the special rapporteur, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders released his film Fitna online. Wilders — for those of you lucky enough not to know him –– is a platinum blond provocateur — who has made a reputation for himself attacking Islam. He wants Muslim immigration to the Netherlands to be stopped. ‘Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe,’ he told the Dutch parliament in 2007. ‘If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time.’ His film Fitna was a crude piece of propaganda –– equating Islam with violence. No Dutch public broadcaster screened it. Although the Dutch Muslim Broadcasting Association did in fact offer to show it –– if they could view it first for illegal content and if Wilders would take part in a debate. But Wilders turned down that invitation. And the Dutch press centre offered too –– but wanted Wilders to pay for security costs. Again he refused.
There were, at the time, apocalyptic predictions of another outcry of Danish cartoons proportions –– but that scenario failed to materialise. The film was a damp squib. Nevertheless, the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban ki-Moon weighed in to the row and described it as ‘offensively anti-Islamic’ — adding for clarity ‘the right of free expression is not at stake here’.
All of this was made all the more pointed by the timing. Last year was the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. But here was the global guardian of these rights undermining them. So entrenched has the notion become that that there is a right not to be offended, that neither the secretary general nor the council seemed to feel any need to argue for or justify their position.
And our government, just two weeks ago, reinforced that position when they banned Geert Wilders from coming into the country. I must say though that I was puzzled by Lord Pearson inviting him over now to show the film, nearly a year after the event. I have my suspicions that the Lords may not have known how to watch YouTube.
But the UK government’s reasons for keeping Wilders out –– that his opinions threaten community security and therefore public security –– is also becoming a common refrain when it comes to critics of religion –– a justification for limiting free speech and a powerful argument for censorship.
We saw the same argument, again last year, when Random House dropped The Jewel of Medina. A historical romance about the Prophet Mohammed’s relationship with Ayesha. In a statement, the publisher said that ‘the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment’ –– as a result, they would not be publishing the book ‘for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel’. Now I wouldn’t of course dispute the fact that these are serious considerations that have to be made, but the irony is that it’s this pre-emptive censorship (whether it’s deciding not to publish or to ban someone from coming into the country) which serves to inflame the situation –– because of the publicity that comes with the ban.
But it is the Random House or UN Human Rights Council view that now prevails: potentially offensive speech is so dangerous that it cannot be given a platform. Our liberty is better served by deploying censorship rather than protecting the right to free speech.
This is the Alice in Wonderland world of human rights. Where you the best way to exercise your rights is by having them denied.
One of the most astute writers on this issue, Kenan Malik, has observed that a profound shift has taken place in our attitude to free speech. He has written that it is no longer seen as an inherent good, necessary for expressing moral autonomy, maintaining social progress and safeguarding our other freedoms. It’s come to be seen as damaging: as a problem. And, I would add, it is the voices who want to limit free speech that are now occupying the moral high ground –– not the human rights defenders.
We published a special issue of Index on Censorship last year marking the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And we asked one of the most distinguished international defenders of free speech, Aryeh Neier, to write a piece for us. Neier was for many years executive director of Human Rights Watch. And is now president of the Open Society Institute. Neier was a refugee from Nazi Germany. Yet as head of the American Civil Liberties Union in the 70s, he took a controversial stand on one of the most famous free speech battles of the past 60 years –– the right of neo-Nazis to march through a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood –– a neighbourhood not just of Jews, but of Holocaust survivors. In looking back at that storm, he wrote for Index: ‘Ensuring that all may speak freely, no matter how repugnant their views, prevents the authorities from using the pretext that they are blocking hate speech as a means to censor expression that actually disturbs them for other reasons.’
Standing up for repugnant views can put you in a very uncomfortable position. At Index on Censorship over the past year we’ve had to stand up for racists and Holocaust deniers. My colleague Padraig Reidy was somewhat disturbed to get a Christmas card from one of the leading Holocaust deniers, with a most delightful photograph of Hitler’s favourite apologists at the notorious conference on the Holocaust in Tehran three years ago. And a free DVD with David Irving on the cover in handcuffs. And I’ve had the honour of being described as charming by the BNP.
They think we’re their friends.
But we do know that the discomfort this entails is necessary for a free and open society –– a society that acknowledges the universal right to free speech and doesn’t cut the cloth of human rights to fit the preoccupations and politics of our time.