Putting non-believers on the agenda at the Durban Review Conference

  • Date / 10 April 2009

Roy Brown reports: Work progresses slowly, line by line, on the final outcome document of the Durban Review Conference against Racism (DRC) to be held in Geneva from 20 to 24 April. The latest major revision of the text – issued on 17 March – had contained several important improvements: all direct references to Israel – the traditional and only target for criticism for the majority of states on the Council – had been dropped from the draft; there was no longer any mention of Defamation of Religion; and Freedom of Expression, frequently the target of criticism by the OIC, was mentioned only positively.

But the text still fails to mention three issues of crucial importance for IHEU and its member organisations: Untouchability, contemporary chattel slavery, and discrimination against non-believers, apostates and free-thinkers. Each of these issues has been the subject of a briefing note by IHEU for consideration by the delegations debating the final text at a series of “intersessional open-ended working group meetings”, the last of which took place from 6 to 9 April in Geneva.

By 9 April, the last day for informal discussion before the debate moves on to the formal PrepCom, we had still failed to achieve progress on two of these issues: untouchability and discrimination against non-believers, apostates etc. Unfortunately none of the IHEU team members was available to attend the discussion on the 9th, so David Littman of the Association for World Education agreed to present these two briefing notes to the meeting on behalf of IHEU.

Here, in David Littman’s own words, is what happened:

“I had only gone to this meeting at the request of my NGO colleague, Roy Brown, who was travelling and could not participate. He had prepared a very fine ‘Briefing Note’ (for the International Humanist and Ethical Union), to which we had made small additions which were accepted, allowing AWE and WUPJ to join IHEU on this text concerning article 10 of the ‘Rolling text’ (under discussion), which currently reads:

10.  Recognizes with deep concern the negative stereotyping of religion and the global rise in the number of incidents of racial or religious intolerance and violence, including Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianophobia and anti-Arabism;

There was one major snag in bringing this to the attention of the meeting: NGOs can only refer to parts of the text actually under discussion at the current meeting, whereas article 10 had been the subject of discussion the previous day (although no final agreement had been reached). Fortunately, late in the day on 9th, Iran referred to article 10, requesting that the word ‘stigmatizing’ replace ‘stereotyping’. This was an unexpected bonanza and I scribbled a note to the secretary asking to speak for AWE, WUPJ and IHEU when a brief period would be allotted to NGOs at the end of the meeting. But as I walked toward the podium, wandering how I could get my message into the hands of the chairman, I almost tripped on a lose wire connecting a computer, and a ‘big bang’ stopped the meeting in its tracks – together with the Iranian ambassador who was speaking just three metres in front of me. He looked around nervously and then frowned when he recognised who had stopped him. But there was a bounty to this near-fall: two friendly guards rushed to help me, and one of them then agreed to carry my message up to the out-of-bounds podium. Half an hour later, I was called to speak – the first NGO – by the fair and efficient Russian chairman.

I was able to read the whole of the IHEU text, copies of which were made available on the back table of the hall. The text was received with much appreciation, and several Western representatives, as well as the Russian ambassador, made positive comments. 100 copies of the note were quickly picked up.”

The crucial question is whether this important modification to the text will be accepted or not. This will only be known next week when the Preparatory Committee meets. Here is the note:

International Humanist and Ethical Union

Human Rights of Non-believers, Apostates and Free-thinkers

“The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed”.
General Comment 22 on Article 18, United Nations Human Rights Committee, 1993.

We find paragraph 10 of the draft outcome document to be deeply flawed in that it singles out only Christians, Jews and Muslims as named victims of “phobias”. Furthermore, while the term “Islamophobia”, for example, is undefined, it is used to falsely equate disdain for, or opposition to Islam with intolerance of, or violence and hatred towards Muslims.

Secondly, no mention is made in paragraph 10 of discrimination, intolerance and violence towards non-believers, Polytheists, apostates, and free-thinkers. Yet the human rights of non-believers, free-thinkers and those of other faiths are systematically denied in many parts of the world, and many face discrimination, abuse and even death.

We urge delegations to recognise that all are entitled to protection from discrimination, whatever their belief or lack of belief. We therefore respectfully suggest either that the list of specific types of discrimination be deleted from paragraph 10, or the list be expanded to include non-believers, polytheists, apostates and free-thinkers

We are equally concerned that anti-Arabism is included in the list, while no mention is made of the anti-Westernism endemic in many parts of the world. Again, we would respectfully suggest that either the reference to anti-Arabism be deleted or that the list should be extended to include anti-Westernism.

Our preferred text, which we respectfully offer to delegations, then becomes:
10.  Recognizes with deep concern the negative stereotyping of religions, beliefs and non-beliefs, and the global rise in the number of incidents of racial or religious intolerance and violence.

With, as an alternative:
10.  Recognizes with deep concern the negative stereotyping of religion, beliefs, and non-beliefs, and the global rise in the number of incidents of racial or religious intolerance and violence, including Judeophobia, Christianophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Arabism, anti-Westernism and intolerance and violence towards non-believers, polytheists, apostates and free-thinkers.

—- End of briefing note —

David Littman concluded:

“The process towards a satisfactory outcome of the DRC has been long and hard but there is now great hope – especially by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as she stated on 6 April (“I am firmly convinced that the current text contains all the elements that would foster and underpin a consensual outcome of the Durban Review Conference…”) that the Durban Review Conference will be a success. Time will tell, but it seems probable that some States (especially from the OIC) will remain true to form and the EU will be unable to go along with their attempted additions, deletions and omissions. One of the most glaring of these omissions is in articles 60, 61, 62 on slavery, and 63 on genocide:

60. Welcomes actions undertaken to honor the memory of the victims of slavery and the slave trade, in particular the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide;

61. Notes actions of those countries that have, in the context of these past tragedies, expressed remorse, offered apologies, and/or restituted [sic] cultural artifacts [sic] since the adoption of DDPA, and calls on those who have not yet contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims to find appropriate ways to do so;

62. Urges States to implement General Assembly (GA) resolutions 61/19 AND 62/122 on the transatlantic slave trade;

63. Urges States to combat impunity for crimes of genocide in accordance with international law, and in this context urges States to cooperate fully with international tribunals

There is no way that the African Union, the OIC and the Arab League will accept the inclusion of any mention of the Arabic, Persian or Ottoman jihad-enslavement lasting from the 7th century until the 20th – one of the best-documented phenomena in the history of slavery, and without which the various Muslim caliphates and empires could never have flourished. This silence at the United Nations is a shame. But equally serious is the fact that modern slavery in certain countries, including Mauretania, southern Sudan and Darfur – all members of the OIC – will not receive a mention either.”


We will all continue to push during the PrepCom for the final text to include condemnation of discrimination against the Dalits and all untouchables. We are hopeful of success because the issue was raised by the High Commissioner Navi Pillay herself during a visit to India last month.

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