The slow death of freedom of expression
The United Nations Human Rights Council today passed a resolution aimed at restricting criticism of religion, or ‘religious defamation’. Roy W Brown examines why the UN is putting protection of ideas above freedom of expression Slowly but inexorably the shutters are coming down on what history will surely recall as one of the high-points of […]
26 Mar 09

un_human_rights_councilThe United Nations Human Rights Council today passed a resolution aimed at restricting criticism of religion, or ‘religious defamation’. Roy W Brown examines why the UN is putting protection of ideas above freedom of expression

Slowly but inexorably the shutters are coming down on what history will surely recall as one of the high-points of human civilisation: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first shot was fired by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after he came to power in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when he said: ‘When we want to know about human rights we do not go to the UN, we go to the Holy Quran.’ Since then, Islamic states and their allies have been slowly whittling away at the Universal Declaration and its counterpart in international law, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Within the UN system, structures and procedures put in place to monitor compliance with the ICCPR have been undermined and weakened in the name of regional and cultural differences. The mandates of the Special Rapporteurs (special investigators) charged with exposing and documenting human rights abuses have been rewritten to reduce their scope for action, while a new ‘code of conduct’ gives the states under investigation the right to challenge all and any of the investigator’s findings before they are published. Investigators who used to have an inviolate period of tenure can now be dismissed after one year if they upset the target of their investigations. The very concept of ‘country-specific’ mandates is under threat. Within the past year the mandates of several special investigators have been abruptly terminated.

At the same time, the concept that human rights are universal and vested in the individual has been challenged by the introduction of rights vested in the group — such as ‘the right to development’ — and by regional and cultural variants on universality. For example, the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights has added ‘peoples’ as the rightful beneficiaries of human rights, so that governments, as their legal representatives, have assumed for themselves the rights of their people.

Finally, freedom of expression is coming under increasing threat as the Islamic states seek special protection against ‘defamation’ of their religion.

How has all this come about?

The answer, sadly, is that the majority of member states of the Human Rights Council are united in a single purpose: not the promotion and protection of human rights, but the prevention of the exposure of their own human rights abuses.

The first body charged with the promotion and protection of human rights was the Commission on Human Rights, set up to monitor the ICCPR. By 2005 however the Commission had fallen into such disrepute that the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, concluded that the selectivity and politicisation of its work was in danger of bringing the entire UN system into disrepute, that the Commission was incapable of reform, and that it should be replaced by a new body whose members were truly committed to human rights. That was the idea. But by early 2006, it had become clear that the UN General Assembly was far from keen on such a revolutionary step. After nine long months of negotiation what emerged was scarcely better than the old Commission.

The idea that member states had to sign up to the full package of human rights law had been quietly dropped in favour of a pledge to ‘work towards’ universal acceptance, and member states were to be elected not on the basis of their human rights record, but by region. The result is a Council comprising 47 member states, 17 of whom are members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) who, together with their allies, Russia, China, Cuba and the African Group, make up a permanent 2/3 majority in the Council. The old ‘like-minded’ group of human rights abusers that once dominated the Commission has been replaced by this group united in its opposition to ‘western’ values.

The war of attrition on universal human rights continued in 1990 with the publication of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. This document, which the OIC claims is ‘not an alternative but complementary’ to the UDHR, makes no reference to the Universal Declaration but states that the Islamic Sharia ‘shall be the only source of reference’ for the interpretation of the rights set out therein. When, in March 2008, I attempted to challenge this falsehood in the Council by pointing out the incompatibility of the Cairo Declaration with the UDHR, I was silenced on a point of order by the Pakistani delegate who said: ‘it is insulting to our faith to discuss the Sharia in this Council’. Sadly the president agreed, banning from that point on any ‘judgmental statements regarding any system of law’. In June 2008, the Egypt delegate brought Council proceedings to a halt for almost an hour when he insisted that no reference could be made to Islam, Sharia law or fatwas. Faced with a vote that could have overturned his decision to let the speaker continue, the president backed down, and when the meeting resumed he told the Council that ‘we do not need to discuss religion in this Council, nor shall we’. Islam had won a free pass and is now officially absolved of any responsibility for any human rights abuse carried out in its name.

Meanwhile, other doors had been closing. In March 2008, after a vote engineered by the OIC and supported by its allies, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Expression was changed to require him to report on not only violations but on ‘abuses’ of that right; thereby, in the words of the Canadian delegate, ‘turning the mandate on its head’.

The combined effect of these changes has been to ratchet up the level of immunity enjoyed by the Islamic states from investigation and exposure in the Council. If that was their only objective it would be bad enough. But for the past ten years they have also had their sights set on a far bigger prize, the acceptance and adoption by the international community of the Islamic interpretation of human rights. To achieve this they needed to tackle head on freedom of expression. Their chosen method was to introduce a resolution ‘combating defamation of religion’. Their stated objective was to prevent the negative stereotyping of Islam in the media following 9/11 (although their initial presentation of this resolution predated 9/11 by 2-and-a-half years), the linking of Islam with violence and terror, and increasing discrimination against Muslims. The unstated objective was to create a framework for the world-wide introduction of laws to silence any criticism of Islam, its laws or its practices.

Resolutions combating defamation of religion have now been adopted by the Commission and by the Council every year since 1999, and by the UN General Assembly since 2007. While they are not binding on member states, they are permissive and legitimise any blasphemy laws adopted anywhere in the word — and this despite the fact that the concept of ‘defamation of religion’ has no validity in international law and the resolution is incompatible with the provisions of the ICCPR safeguarding freedom of expression.

The latest version of the resolution has just been passed at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The resolution is deeply flawed. Not only does the concept of defamation of religion have no validity in international law, the resolution is unnecessary because the problem it purports to address, increasing discrimination and incitement to hatred experienced by Muslims, is already dealt with under international law. Article 20 of the ICCPR specifies the steps that states must take to outlaw incitement to hatred or violence. So it is clear that the OIC have another reason for pushing these resolutions; namely, extending restrictions on freedom of expression that already exist in the Islamic states — blasphemy laws — into international law, and thereby silencing critics of Islam in the rest of the world.

Roy W Brown is IHEU’s main representative to the UN in Geneva

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella organisation for national, regional and international humanist, secular and rationalist organisations, with more that 100 member organisations in over 40 countries. IHEU has Special Consultative Status with the UN (New York, Geneva, Vienna), General Consultative Status at UNICEF (New York) and the Council of Europe (Strasbourg), and maintains operational Relations with UNESCO (Paris)