IHEU and NSS sound the alarm on freedom of expression at the UN

  • Date / 18 April 2008

At the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Tuesday, 15 April, states belonging to the Organisation of Islamic Conference demanded that Holland prosecute one of its MPs for “defamation of religion”. The very next day, 16 April 2008, Keith Porteous Wood raised the alarm about the threats these nations are posing to freedom of expression in a speech in Brussels attended by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Keith Porteous Wood was speaking as an International representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and executive director of the (UK) National Secular Society at a colloquium organised jointly by the European Commission and the European Humanist Federation. We have the full text of the speech here.

Great anniversaries such as this provide an opportunity to apply the lessons of the past and the present to our plans for the future. And that is what I am inviting you to do now, but it is not going to be a comfortable exercise.

Today, we are honoured to have here as our guests in Brussels some eminent politicians, diplomats and academics. I have no formal background in politics or diplomacy. Indeed I may even be undiplomatic about diplomats! But I hope to give our distinguished guests some food for thought, whether or not they agree with my analysis.

The proposition I start out with and will go on to justify, is that the body overseeing international Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, is ineffective. Worse, it is in grave danger of shielding Human Rights abuses and abusers from public scrutiny. Worse still, it is starting to be used to legitimise – even initiate – attacks on the basic human right of freedom of expression.

Towards the end of last year (2007), I attended the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on several occasions. I was there as an International Representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union whose status entitles it to appoint various representatives to the UN, for example at the New York headquarters and Geneva, home to the UNHRC.

It soon became obvious that much of the debate, especially on topics such as freedom of expression, was polarised along religious lines. The dominant voices were coming from the countries that belong to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). There are over fifty of them, and on their own form a powerful bloc vote, which is often strengthened by other countries (for example China, Cuba and Russia) for a variety of disparate motives. Up against this, the European states, and others which share their commitment to freedom of expression and other basic human rights seem powerless, certainly in terms of votes. This is largely inbuilt into the structure of the Council and may itself be a symptom of a gradual but hugely significant change in the balance of world power. You will be surprised that the USA does not have a voting role, and to me, the western voices do not speak out with much confidence, if they speak out at all.
The more I heard, the more alarmed I became. It is de rigeur at the UNHRC to talk about Human Rights abuses by Israel, some of which I am the first to say deserve condemnation. However at the same time, it is all but verboten in the UNHRC to refer to sentencing people to death for so-called apostasy or homosexual acts. The handful of countries for which these remain as capital offences are all members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

But today I want to concentrate on the bedrock of democracy and indeed of our civilisation – Freedom of Expression.
It is time for me to substantiate these assertions with some specific examples, which we have to keep updating. Unfortunately they keep being overtaken by something worse. The most blatant to date occurred on 28 March (2008).

A group of OIC states has succeeded in forcing through an amendment to a resolution on the mandate for the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, effectively turning the entire concept on its head. The Rapporteur will now be required to report on the “abuse” of this most cherished freedom. We fear this will be interpreted to include those daring speak out against Sharia laws that require women to be stoned to death for adultery or young men to be hanged for being gay, or against the marriage of girls as young as nine, as in Iran.

The amendment was passed by 27 votes to 15, the OIC states being supported by China, Russia and Cuba.

Canada, India, and a number of European states spoke out against the change of focus from protecting to limiting freedom of expression. More than 20 of the original 53 co-sponsors of the resolution withdrew their support.

The amendment was passed despite a heart-rending plea not to support it by a courageous group of around twenty NGOs, mainly from Islamic states. Following that, there are now moves to limit NGOs’ interventions to only those whose Governments permit them to speak.

The head of steam building up in many Islamic states for worldwide defamation legislation is huge. The Danish cartoon “crisis” which was generated outside Denmark well after the original publication and claimed lives was just an hors d’oeuvres of what can be expected in future. As the world saw towards the end of 2007, agreeing to some children’s request to name a teddy bear “Muhammed” can lead to calls for a death sentence.

There is unfortunately insufficient time today to deal with another huge problem, regional and – even more worrying, ideological – variants of the Universal Declaration. Let me just say that there is just one ideological variant, and that is championed by the OIC, called the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. It is effectively subject to Shariah and is not compatible with the Universal Declaration. Yet I am convinced the aim is to elevate it to the same status, at least in Islamic countries.

Those most desperately in need of Human Rights protection are already those least likely to receive it, and there seem few grounds for optimism about an improvement.

The views I am expressing are shared by my colleague from IHEU, Roy Brown, who deserves much credit for his tireless work in the chamber in Geneva. We have been making this proposition in the public arena for months and no one has yet even tried to suggest we are wrong. I only wish we were. But even if we are only 50% right – this still raises some questions that are very hard to answer. I’ll suggest a few.

• Bearing in mind that the two year old UNHRC is itself a replacement of a discredited UN Commission, is it capable of ever assuming its rightful role?

• Why are so few people aware of the acute – if not chronic – problems with the UNHRC and can human rights be the casualty when diplomats’ focus is on keeping the peace and promoting dialogue? Should there not be a recognition that in such matters as Human Rights, compromise is not always possible?

• If the UNHRC is found to be unable to fulfil its role, is there a point past which those of like mind would be better to walk away?

• If they do this, what is the next best option, and who should take the lead in bringing this about?

• Do these problems presage similar difficulties for other international organisations, such as the UN itself, the Council of Europe and even the European Parliament?

• And finally, given these problems, what can best be done to promote Universal Human Rights, in the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, worldwide?

I conclude with two pleas to our politicians and diplomats.
On a wider and longer term note, we need a world spotlight on the UNHRC and regular realistic assessments as to whether it continues to serve a useful purpose. If at some time in the future we decide it does not, perhaps the best we can hope for is that a coalition of liberal democracies do their best to promote Human Rights on as broad a front as possible.

On freedom of expression, I urge European leaders to be wary of those affirming their support for freedom of expression, “provided it is used responsibly”. The freedom to say that which is neither challenging nor shocking is no freedom at all. No concessions made on freedom of expression will ever be enough. The daily reality of life in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia where religion has achieved political power show that many religious movements will be satisfied with nothing less than the silencing of those who disagree with religious dogma.

Our leaders should be much less yielding to demands, including from the Catholic Church, over freedom of expression. No concessions made on freedom of expression will ever be enough. They should realise that new defamation of religion laws will lead to extremists escaping criticism and to the suppression of human rights campaigners and commentators. Freedom of expression underpins our democracy and our civilisation; it is too precious to barter.

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