Free expression and the United Nations
Defamation of religion: Freedom of expression groups have voiced concern at a new bid by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the African Group to change UN conventions.
22 Oct 09

More freedom of expression and human rights groups have voiced concern at a bid by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the African Group to write new conditions into an international convention that will add a requirement to ban defamation of religion to a convention intended to eliminate racism.

The OIC, represented by Pakistan, and the African Group, represented by Egypt, have approached the UN Ad Hoc Committee mandated to ‘elaborate’ on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The OIC proposes new and binding standards on issues such as ‘defamation of religions, religious personalities, holy books, scriptures and symbols’. Twenty four groups, including ten Arab organisations, have put their name to an appeal to the Ad Hoc committee not to accept the OIC proposals.

With an eye to the Danish cartoons saga, the OIC calls for protection against ‘provocative portrayals of objects of religious veneration as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance,’ and prohibition of the publication of ‘…gratuitously offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred by the followers of any religion’.

The OIC submission would also provide for action against ‘abuse of the right to freedom of expression in the context of racio-religious profiling’.

The letter, originated by free expression campaigners Article 19, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Human Rights Watch Legal Resource Consortium in South Africa, maintains that the concept of ‘defamation of religions’ is contrary to freedom of expression but also general principles of international human rights law.

The focus, the signatories argue, should be on protecting the rights of individual believers, rather than belief systems.

‘Tolerance and understanding can only be properly addressed through open debate and intercultural dialogue involving state actors, politicians and public figures, the media and civil society organisations,’ say the groups.

‘Furthermore, the concept of defamation of religions has been abusively relied upon to stifle religious dissent and criticism of religious adherents and non-believers in a number of countries around the world.’

The African Group proposes that the Ad Hoc Committee defines ‘Islamophobia,’ ‘Anti-Semitism’ and ‘Christianophobia’ without offering up any definitions of these concepts itself. The protesting groups argue that these categories of phobias relating to Islam, Judaism and Christianity ‘clearly discriminate against believers of other religions and non-believers’.

A similar letter of concern by 23 members of the IFEX network of free expression groups and other organisations this week also called on the Ad Hoc committee to ensure that attempts to address racial or religious hatred should conform to standards of international law.

Open Letter to the UN Ad Hoc Committee for the Elaboration of Complementary Standards.