The fourth session of the new Human Rights Council was held in Geneva from 12 to 30 March 2007, but high hopes that the Council would find a way forward on Darfur were dashed when the Council declined to act on the report of a High-Level Mission to Darfur led by Nobel prizewinner Jodie Williams because of obstruction by the Sudanese government. And the Council further reverted to type when Pakistan pushed through a resolution “combating Defamation of Religions” against numerous objections from the western democracies.
Every year from 1999 to 2005 the Organization of the Islamic Conference, representing the 57 Islamic states, presented a resolution to the UN Commission on Human Rights, called “Combating Defamation of Religions”. While the text of the resolution referred to all religions the preamble made it clear that the sponsors’ concerns related primarily to one religion: Islam. The resolution was adopted every year by typically a two thirds majority. By 2005, the Commission for Human Rights had become widely discredited. In the words of then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan “.. the selectivity and politicizing of its activities [were] in danger of bringing the entire UN system into disrepute”. The Commission was abolished by vote of the UN General Assembly in 2006 and replaced by a shiny new Human Rights Council which met for the first time in March 2006. Hopes were soon dashed however that the newly elected 47 member states of the Council – each pledged to uphold international human rights law – would behave any differently from the 53 members of the old Commission. Of the first four resolutions passed by the Council, three were resolutions condemning Israel. Whatever breaches of human rights law Israel may have committed, it beggars belief that these were the only violations of human rights on the planet worthy of condemnation by the Council. By way of contrast, the Council adopted a resolution which inter-alia congratulated the Sudan for its efforts to bring peace to Darfur.
In 2006, the OIC did not for once present a resolution to the Council condemning defamation of religion but said that they were considering a new approach. Their “new approach” was unveiled last week with the publication of their draft resolution [A/HRC/4/L.12] “Combating Defamation of Religions”. The wording was virtually unchanged from the resolutions adopted by the old Commission. None of this would matter if the resolution was actually aimed at helping prevent discrimination or violence against people on the basis of their religion or belief. But sadly this is not the case. First, the resolution fails to define “defamation”. It is a catch-all term intended to silence any criticism of religious practice or of laws based on religion – however pernicious. Secondly, it attempts to limit certain rights, including the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under international human rights law. Thirdly, it fails to distinguish between religions and their followers. To criticize any aspect of Islam, for example, is seen as an attack on Muslims.
Addressing the Human Rights Council on 29 March, Roy W. Brown, IHEU main representative said that the resolution failed to distinguish between defamation of religion and incitement to violence. He expressed the hope that the OIC would condemn the death threats recently made against the Bengali writer Taslima Nasrin. (This appeal has so far, unsurprisingly, fallen on deaf ears). “It is the believer that merits protection, not the belief” continued Brown in a joint IHEU statement with World Population Foundation. The full text of his statement is given below.
Echoing Brown’s comments during the vote on the resolution on 31 March, Birgitta Maria Siefker-Eberle of Germany, speaking on behalf of the European Union, pointed out that international human rights law protected individuals in the exercise of their freedom of religion and belief, and not the religion itself. Speaking for Canada, Paul Meyer also expressed concern that the focus of the resolution was religions themselves rather than their adherents. Nevertheless, and despite the concerns of many western delegations, the resolution was adopted by 24 votes to 14 with 9 abstentions.
Meanwhile, the Sudan was again able to snub its nose at the Human Rights Council when the European Union, desperate to find some way forward on Darfur were forced to compromise with the African States in agreeing to send yet another mission to Sudan to investigate the situation in Darfur, thus effectively agreeing with the Africans and the Islamic States that since the Sudanese government had prevented the High-level Mission to Darfur from visiting the country, the mission had been unable to “carry out its mandate”. This despite the overwhelming evidence the mission had uncovered from witnesses in neighboring Chad of the ongoing atrocities against the black population by the Sudanese government-backed militia.
International Humanist and Ethical Union
World Population Foundation
Human Rights Council, Fourth Session 14 – 30 March 2007
Statement by IHEU main representative, Roy W. Brown, 29 March 2007
Defamation of Religions
We welcome the report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and in particular his conclusion that “There is no contradiction between freedom of religion and freedom of expression” [A/HRC/4/27 para 70]. This view however is clearly not shared by all members of the Council, nor by all special rapporteurs.
We refer to the draft resolution [A/HRC/4/L.12] “Combating Defamation of Religions”. On 14 March the spokesperson for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference referred to what she described as “a dire need to fill the judicial vacuum of deficiency in dealing with the question of respect for religions…” and asked for “effective and legally binding measures for combating defamation of all religions and incitement to racial and religious violence”.
This however is to confuse two quite separate issues: defamation of religion, and incitement to violence. All of us, Mr President, must condemn incitement to racial and religious violence, and in this connexion we hope that the OIC will condemn the death threats made last week by Islamic extremists against the Bengali writer Taslima Nasrin.
Mr President, no-one has a duty to respect any religion. Furthermore, lack of respect for a belief should not be confused with hatred of the believer. It is the believer that merits protection, not the belief.
And how are we to define defamation? Are we no longer to be permitted to condemn misogyny, homophobia, or calls to kill – if they are made in the name of religion? Are we obliged to respect religious practices that we find offensive? Is lack of respect for such practices to be considered a crime? Are ideas, are religions now to be accorded human rights? Surely, when religion invades the public domain it becomes an ideology like any other, and must be open to criticism as such. To deny the claims of religion is neither defamation nor blasphemy.
Finally, one can only express dismay at the demonising of European secularism by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism. He clearly fails to understand that secularism – that is, state neutrality in matters of religion and belief – is not an expression of intolerance but a guarantee of religious freedom for all, a defence of the values on which our human rights are based, the very values that this Council should be seeking to protect.
Thank you, sir
 Defamation of Religions vs Freedom of Expression: Finding the Balance in a Democratic Society. https://humanists.international/system/files/Grinberg+report+2006.pdf