The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) played a key role during the last week of the 21st session of the UN Human Rights Council in defeating attempts by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to include wording on "religious intolerance" within a resolution on racism.
IHEU had argued that this was an attack on freedom of expression and an attempt to provide cover for states who wanted to silence legitimate criticism of religious practices, or of regimes which employ religious authority as a tool of governance.
The "religious intolerance" move followed the publishing of a YouTube video, ‘Innocence of Muslims’, the subsequent murder of the American Ambassador to Libya and the deaths of dozens of demonstrators around the world.
In an eleventh hour climb-down following protests from many Western and Latin American States, the sponsors agreed to remove two references to “discrimination against any religion, and the targeting of religious symbols and venerated persons” from a resolution (A/HRC/21/L.29) calling on states to work together on the elimination of racism from the internet, sport and the media.
According to one contact, the US delegation welcomed the speech by IHEU representative Josephine Macintosh for highlighting the role played by an Egyptian Islamist TV channel in inciting the violent response to the ‘Innocence’ video, a fact apparently not widely appreciated by several delegations, who then pressed the sponsors to remove the passages on religion.
When it came to the vote on 28 September, only the United States voted against the resolution with the nine European states abstaining. Whilst their concerns regarding the linking of religious intolerance to racism had been largely addressed, the European states were still concerned that the resolution failed, in the words of Austria speaking for the EU: "to strike the right balance between challenges and opportunities in relation to Internet and related technologies, and regretted that sponsors did not make reference to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination."
Sources in Washington suggest that the OIC is likely to return to their demands for special protection for religious beliefs, symbols and "venerated persons" at the next session of the Human Rights Council in March 2013.
Head of Delegation to Geneva, Roy Brown, said, "IHEU will continue to lobby against any such protection in human rights law. Human rights apply to people, not their ideas, religions or beliefs, and calls for such protection are a clear attempt to outlaw legitimate criticism of religion, religious authorities, and religious practices."