There is a story brewing which has received surprisingly little attention in the blogosphere; quite surprising considering the outspokenness of many of its denizens.
The UN Human Rights Council is working on a new Draft Resolution on Freedom of Opinion and Expression. The resolution is sponsored by the US and Egypt and contains a paragraph which should raise concerns in wide circles.
It was a column by Prof. Jonathan Turley (well known commentator on Keith Olbermanns show) that drew my attention to the issue:
Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.
While attracting surprisingly little attention, the Obama administration supported the effort of largely Muslim nations in the U.N. Human Rights Council to recognize exceptions to free speech for any “negative racial and religious stereotyping.” The exception was made as part of a resolution supporting free speech that passed this month, but it is the exception, not the rule that worries civil libertarians. Though the resolution was passed unanimously, European and developing countries made it clear that they remain at odds on the issue of protecting religions from criticism. It is viewed as a transparent bid to appeal to the “Muslim street” and our Arab allies, with the administration seeking greater coexistence through the curtailment of objectionable speech.
In the resolution, the administration aligned itself with Egypt, which has long been criticized for prosecuting artists, activists and journalists for insulting Islam. For example, Egypt recently banned a journal that published respected poet Helmi Salem merely because one of his poems compared God to a villager who feeds ducks and milks cows.
Thinly disguised blasphemy laws are often defended as necessary to protect the ideals of tolerance and pluralism. They ignore the fact that the laws achieve tolerance through the ultimate act of intolerance: criminalizing the ability of some individuals to denounce sacred or sensitive values. We do not need free speech to protect popular thoughts or popular people. It is designed to protect those who challenge the majority and its institutions. Criticism of religion is the very measure of the guarantee of free speech — the literal sacred institution of society.
Prof. Turley, as usual, is a pleasure to read, go read the entire column.
Meanwhile, I have also dug up some further background information on the issue. A good place to start is here: Global Campaign for Free Expression (also known as Article 19).
Article 19 has suggested to amend the resolution as follows:
ARTICLE 19 is particularly concerned about the reference in paragraph 4 of the latest
version of the draft resolution which states that the Human Rights Council “expresses its concern that … negative racial and religious stereotyping continue[s] to rise around the world”. The earlier resolution referred to “negative stereotyping of religions and racial groups around the world”. While the word “religions” is omitted from paragraph 4 of the latest draft, the language of “negative racial and religious
stereotyping” does not resolve the problems inherent in the earlier draft resolution: it is ambiguous as to what “stereotyping” refers to and it may be easily interpreted to encompass religions, religious ideas and religious symbols, none of which are not protected by international law. We recommend that the words “negative racial and religious stereotyping” should be replaced with “negative stereotyping of individuals
and groups on the basis of their religion or race”, language which is conformity with international human rights law.
The preparation of this resolution has proceeded mainly below the radar of so many of us. Time to apply some pressure and raise our voices against this infringement of free speech. I certainly would like to maintain my right to call out any fundamentalist religious BS – be it “Christian” or Muslim or anything else.
[…]Rights groups cautiously welcomed the resolution as an improvement on earlier drafts, but said Egypt was in no position to lecture other countries about free speech as it has a poor record on the matter.
“Egypt’s cosponsorship of the resolution on freedom of expression is not the result of a real commitment to upholding freedom of expression,” said Jeremie Smith, Geneva director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
“If this were the case, freedom of expression would not be systematically violated on a daily basis in Egypt,” he said.
Others warned that the resolution appears to protect religions rather than believers and encourages journalists to abide by ill-defined codes of conduct.
What say you?