Islamic states draw new battle lines over Freedom of Expression

  • Date / 6 October 2008

On 2/3 October, over 200 national delegates and NGO representatives attended a unique two-day expert seminar at the UN Geneva to discuss limits to Freedom of Expression. Convened by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the request of the Islamic States, a dozen experts and many other speakers took the floor to explore the links between Freedom of Expression and incitement to religious hatred.

Many of the experts urged caution in proposing new legislation that could have negative consequences for the very people whose rights we are striving to protect, and while implementation of the existing legislation permitted under Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) is still so patchy in its adoption.

Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia and the representative of the OIC were joined by former UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Doudou Diene, in calling for a review of Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR, and tighter restrictions on Freedom Expression in the aftermath of 9/11 which, they argued, has created an entirely new set of circumstances. This view was strongly opposed by several Western delegations (as well as IHEU) on the grounds that today’s tensions are nothing new, that the limits already offered by Articles 19 and 20 are entirely adequate – and in any case have still to be fully adopted by many states.

Said IHEU representative, Roy Brown, after the meeting: “It is outrageous that many of those States pushing for changes in international law are among the worst offenders themselves when it comes to protecting the rights of minorities”.

It now seems probable, however, that following this meeting the OIC will have achieved another of its objectives and the Human Rights Committee, the UN body of experts charged with monitoring the implementation of the ICCPR, will be asked to consider revisiting its recommendation of 1980 that restrictions on Freedom of Expression should not impair the enjoyment of that freedom itself.

In a warning for the future, it became clear that the Islamic States, having won the battle in both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly over combating defamation of religion, are shifting their attack to a new battle front: what they call “the West’s double standards” over outlawing Holocaust denial while permitting insults to religion. Their demands for “a level playing field” will focus not on repealing laws against Holocaust denial, but on using these laws as models to prohibit any speech critical of Islam!

A detailed summary of the seminar can be found here.

Statement by Roy Brown, International Humanist and Ethical Union to Expert Seminar on Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 2/3 October 2008

I must thank the organisers for giving NGOs the opportunity to participate in this important seminar. I have listened very carefully to the debate and I want to thank the experts for the clarity of their analyses, and several of the other contributors for the points they have raised.

The debate has looked at three main issues so far, but it is clear that cutting across these are two quite different schools of thought: those who believe that the existing restrictions on freedom of expression as set out in Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR are already adequate, and those who believe that freedom of expression is being misused to single out a particular group for attack.

It was suggested by some speakers that the ICCPR is a child of the Cold War, that 9/11 has created an entirely new set of circumstances and that a review of articles 19 and 20 may therefore be necessary. But the ICCPR is actually a child of the Universal Declaration, and even in 1966 memories of the Holocaust were still fresh. It was the intention of those who drafted the UDHR and the ICCPR that those events should never be repeated – against any group. Had they wished to go further in restricting freedom of expression in order ensure no repetition they would most certainly have done so.

The intention of those who drafted articles 19 and 20 was clearly to help prevent incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence against any group, however they might be characterised. I would argue that Article 20 should be broadly construed. It does not go far enough if the explicit reference to nationalities, races and religions is taken as delimiting its scope. This paragraph should be widely interpreted. I do not think we can exclude incitement to hatred of other groups identified, for example, by gender, sexual orientation, class, caste, or even allegiance to a particular football club. Surely, it is incitement to hatred that is the problem, regardless of who may be the target.

My second point is this. There is an elephant in the room, but perhaps I see a different elephant from others. Articles 19 and 20 differ widely in their application both from country to country and from group to group within countries. In some States, as is well known, draconian penalties await critics of the government or of the state religion even when that criticism may be factual and justified. Yet in those same states it is open season on incitement to hatred of other religious groups, and of one group in particular.

We should be extremely cautious in tinkering with articles 19 and 20 when some States already disregard them within their own jurisdictions. I believe the greater problem is lack of uniformity in the application of articles 19 and 20, not the articles themselves. The essence of international law is surely that it be applied internationally and not selectively.

Doudou Diene has argued that we need to revisit the norms and their interpretation. Surely equally important is their adoption and implementation. As one speaker has pointed out, we have tools we have not used. Let us first explore their use.

We should also be cautious about changes that could lead to legitimising unreasonable restrictions on freedom of expression that exist in certain countries – and extending those restrictions to other states where freedom of expression has become one of the cornerstones, indeed one of the principle safeguards, of liberal democracy.

Thank you, sir.

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