Freedom of Expression on trial again at the UN

  • Date / 26 September 2009

In a brave attempt at the Human Rights Council to re-establish their credentials as a team player on the world stage, the United States is co-sponsoring a resolution with Egypt on Freedom of Expression. The intent of the resolution is, in the words of the Egyptian delegate, to bring the Human Rights Council “to a point of convergence” on what has become the most divisive and contentious issue in the short history of the Council.

Certainly the Obama administration is desperate to reach out to the Islamic world after the debacle of the Iraq war and the trashing of America’s international reputation after Abu Graib and Guantanamo, and a president who turned out to be the best recruiting agent the Islamists ever had. But the fear among the Europeans is that the Americans might be prepared to go too far in their attempt to reach a compromise; even perhaps to the point of agreeing wording that would run into conflict with their own constitution if it were ever proposed back home. The signs are not good. The Pakistani delegate – the lead voice among the Islamic States in the Council – made it clear that compromise was not on his agenda. Wording that referred positively or even neutrally to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression was to be deleted. The idea that the media should be responsible for “elaborating their own code of conduct” was anathema. (So much for freedom of the press.) And a suggestion from Argentina, supported by Brazil, Norway and the United Kingdom that negative stereotyping of groups should be extended to include individuals, was opposed on the technical grounds that it differed from the wording adopted in the Durban Review Conference. In other words, if I can’t oppose your eminently fair proposal on its merits, I will do so on technical grounds.

Before the meeting, we had handed out copies of an IHEU briefing note (below) suggesting that incitement to religious hatred made in the name of religion should be explicitly condemned in the text. Unfortunately, none of the delegates present was prepared to pick up on our suggestion and it fell by the wayside.

We also called – yet again – for recognition that it is believers, not their beliefs, that are entitled to respect and protection against hatred. This point is by now well taken by almost all western delegations, but clearly sticks in the gullet of the Islamic states and their allies including the Chinese. For them, individual rights are always accompanied by responsibilities – code for giving governments the right to censor and condemn free expression.

A revised draft is due to be tabled in the Council and voted on next week. Time will tell whether a genuine compromise has been reached or whether the west has once again given too much away.

Here is the full text of the IHEU note:

Human Rights Council: Briefing Note 2009/HRC/023A

Draft resolution on Freedom of Expression

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds…” ICCPR, Article 19 (2)

The new draft resolution on freedom of expression fails to mention the fastest-growing threat to freedom of expression: intolerance in the name of religion. Recent years have seen a rapid escalation in expressions of hatred against one faith by followers of another. This problem is not confined to one particular religion but is widespread. Furthermore, expressions of hatred against minorities in the name of religion tend to go unchecked.

We suggest therefore that the definition of “religious hatred” should include expressions of hatred made in the name of any religion – since such expressions should clearly be subject to similar sanction. We suggest that the following wording might be appropriate:

OP4 bis Stresses that condemning and addressing, in accordance with international human rights obligations, including those regarding equal protection of the law, any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, including such hatred expressed in the name of a religion,…

At the same time, we would like to see a clear statement that insults should not be criminalized unless they constitute incitement to hatred. Legitimate criticism of any religion or belief must be explicitly permitted. We would suggest therefore that the resolution also denounce the growing intolerance to freedom of expression exemplified by the recent reintroduction of blasphemy laws, such as in Ireland and the Netherlands. It is believers, not beliefs, that have human rights and are entitled to respect and protection against hatred.

Lastly, the document should clarify that, while respectful dialogue is desirable, freedom of expression means the freedom to express views with which others strongly disagree and may regard as defamatory – emphasizing that exceptions should be limited to those permitted by the ICCPR. Respect and defamation are in the eyes of the beholder. Freedom to say only what opponents think is respectful is no freedom at all.

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