Wednesday, 24 November 2010

UN moves a step closer to condemning free speech

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After Islamic and African countries successfully passed an amendment removing reference to sexual orientation from a United Nations resolution that condemns summary execution last week, there's more bad news from the UN, as the Social, Humanitarian Cultural Affairs Committee of the General Assembly yesterday voted in favour of a non-binding resolution condemning the "vilification of religion".

This is the latest development in an ongoing effort by Islamic nations to curtail criticism of religion through the UN (the resolution previously referred to "defamation of religion"), and Reuters report that it is expected to be ratified by the General Assembly next month. The latest vote by the committee saw 76 countries in favour, 64 against with 42 abstentions, which suggested support for the resolution has narrowed since the previous vote last year, which was 81-55 with 43 abstentions. The text says the General Assembly:
"urges all States to provide ... adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from vilification of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general."
Morocco submitted the text on behalf of Islamic nations, which make up the bulk of those which voted in favour (you can see the full roll call by downloading/opening a larger version of the image included in this post). Other countries voting in favour include China, North Korea and Russia. While the resolution would not require member states to legislate against "vilification of religion", it is widely seen as an attempt to prevent criticism at the UN and lend international legitimacy to the punitive blasphemy laws in operation in many Islamic states (hence campaigners have called it an "international blasphemy law"), which are often used to restrict the freedom of non-Muslims. Opponents, including the UK, US and other Western governments, condemn the resolution as an attempt to clamp down on individual freedom, while protecting governments from criticism. They say it distorts the principle of human rights, applying them to states rather than individuals. Addressing the committee, US envoy John Sammis voiced his government's concerns:
"The resolution still seeks to curtail and penalize speech. The changes ... unfortunately do not get to the heart of our concerns – the text's negative implications for both freedom of religion and freedom of expression. We are disappointed to see that despite our efforts and discussions on this resolution, the text once again seems to take us farther apart, rather than helping to bridge the historical divides."

The UN General Assembly will vote on the resolution when it meets in Mexico in December.
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