IHEU in last-gasp appeal to Human Rights Commission on freedom of expression

  • post Type / Campaigns
  • Date / 27 March 2006

With the adoption by the UN General Assembly ealier this month of the resolution creating the new Human Rights Council, the current final session of the now discredited Human Rights Commission has been curtailed. Instead of the normal six-week session the Commission will meet for just a few days this week to deal with transitional matters before the gavel falls for the last time. One of the final reports to be presented to the Commission was on the situation of Muslims and Arabs in various regions of the world, a report which even by the tarnished standards of the once-great institution will stand as a model of bias and partiality.

The delays to the opening of the final session of the Commission provided a window of opportunity to IHEU to present a written response to this report, and we did so last night, a few hours before the final deadline.

“Islamophobia” and Freedom of Expression

1. We wish to comment on the report by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance that covers the situation of Muslim and Arab peoples in various parts of the world (E/CN.4/2006/17).

2. The Special Rapporteur speaks of increasing manifestations in many regions of examples of discrimination against Muslim and Arab populations and of violence against their cultural centres and places of worship. (Our translation from the French; English version not yet available.)

3. We are aware of discrimination against members of immigrant communities in Europe. The International Humanist and Ethical Union – as do the greater majority of NGOs worldwide – unequivocally condemns all such discrimination.

4. Unfortunately, we find the overall tenor of the report to be misleading. The Special Rapporteur has failed to provide context for many of the cases cited. For example, it gives no background regarding the need of governments to monitor certain minorities but suggests that “administrative measures to monitor minorities further stigmatises them and legitimises the discrimination of which they are victims”. It is now generally acknowledged that most of the recent terror attacks in the West have been carried out by members of one specific minority community. To ignore this fact is to cast the reaction of Western governments in an unreasonably unfavourable light.

5. In his recommendation (para 38) the Special Rapporteur proposes that the Commission invite Member States to combat, in the spirit of articles 18, 19 and 20 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “expressions linking Islam to violence and terrorism”. However, he fails to question the reason why government ministers and European intelligence officers regularly refer to such links. He cannot be unaware that the majority of those carrying out the most recent terror attacks in Europe have done so in the name of Islam. Yet he makes no mention of this, nor of the fact nor that it is the terrorists who by claiming Islamic justification for their acts have created this link in the public mind. Which is worse: to carry out terrorist attacks in the name of Islam or merely to report on and describe those acts?

6. In the example from Australia, the report describes how on 11 December 2005 “groups of white Australians systematically terrorised everyone of Arab or Lebanese appearance”. But the report fails to mention the earlier incident that provoked the riot. Two life guards were attacked by young Muslims when they tried to intervene after the Muslims had threatened young women on the beach with violence if they appeared there again wearing bikinis. The report does not discuss the possibility that members of minority communities have a responsibility to avoid provocation. Muslims should refrain from attempting to impose their standards on the host society with threats of violence.

7. The partiality of the report is further exemplified by the case of the Danish cartoons, which are described at length, while no mention is made of the far more outrageous cartoons stigmatising Americans, Christians, infidels and especially Jews that appear regularly in the media in many Islamic countries. Nor does the report mention the deliberate campaign by some Danish imams to misrepresent the cartoon affair in their tour of the Middle East.

8. The criticism of the Danish government for not intervening in the affair of the Danish cartoons is also misplaced. No law was broken by the cartoons yet the report claims that the Danish government was under an obligation to take a position on the question of the cartoons inter alia because of “the impact of the cartoons on the liberty and rights of its community of 200 000 Muslims…” While the Danish government might have been required to take action on grounds of public order, the liberty and rights of Muslims were not affected by the publication of the cartoons. Muslims in the West are completely free to practice their religion unhindered. We would point out however that this is in marked contrast to the situation in some Islamic states where the practice of any religion other than Islam is strictly prohibited, and in others discriminated against. The recent case of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan, threatened with the death penalty for converting to Christianity 14 years ago, clearly illustrates the problem. We believe that little progress will be made in mutual understanding until anomalies such as this, which are in clear violation of Articles 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are eliminated.

9. The partiality of the report then leads the Special Rapporteur to conclude that one of the causes of the problem of Islamophobia is “the inadequacy of international law, and in particular the current international human rights instruments, to adequately combat racism and discrimination when confronted with the religious dimension” (“face au fait religieux”).

10. We would suggest that the inadequacy of international human rights instruments arises not from the inadequacy of the rights themselves but from the failure of States and communities to respect, promote and maintain those rights in breach of their obligations under these instruments.

The distinction between human rights and the rights of religions

11. Overall the report shows evidence of a failure to understand the distinction between the need to protect the human rights of individuals, and calls to protect religion from criticism and abuse. No religious doctrine or practice that can cause physical harm to others has protection under international law. The purpose of international law and the international human rights instruments is to protect the rights of human beings. Believers have the right to practice their religion and to proselytise unhindered, but there is no human right not to be offended, nor can there be if freedom of expression is to have any meaning.

12. The price we all pay for the freedom of expression of others is the risk that others might offend us. Violent reaction cannot be condoned simply because our feelings have been hurt. Institutions, including religions, have protection under the law, but they do not have human rights.

13. The recommendations of the Special Rapporteur and recent proposals from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League to introduce absolute protection for religion fail to recognise this distinction. Blasphemy laws contravene the right to freedom of expression and serve only to limit reasoned argument against ideas and beliefs unable to defend themselves in the court of human reason.


14. We deeply regret that rather than bring an even-handed understanding to the problem of the increasing polarisation in Western society, the Special Rapporteur by the partiality of his reporting and through his biased recommendations may have served only to exacerbate the problem.

Note: The full report of the Special Rapporteur (in French) can be found at: http://www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr/docs/62chr/E.CN.4.2006.17.Fr.pdf

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