FaithWorld

Hillary Clinton seeks to smooth Islamic defamation row with OIC

(U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (L) in Istanbul July 15, 2011/Murad Sezer)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed with a major global Islamic organization on Friday to pursue new ways of resolving debates over religion without resorting to legal steps against defamation. Clinton met Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the head of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), in Istanbul to help set up new international mechanisms both protect free speech and combat religious discrimination around the world.

“Together we have begun to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of religion. We are pursuing a new approach based on concrete steps to fight intolerance wherever it occurs,” Clinton said.

Under heavy U.S. pressure, the OIC agreed in March to set aside its 12-year campaign to have religions protected from defamation, a step which allowed the U.N. Human Rights Council to approve a broader plan on religious tolerance. Western countries and their Latin American allies, strong opponents of the defamation concept, joined Muslim and African states in backing without vote the new approach that switches focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers.

Ihsanoglu underscored that the OIC’s aim was not to limit free expression, but to combat religious intolerance which he said was spreading dangerously around the world. “Our cause, which stems from our general concern, should not be interpreted as calls for restriction of freedom,” he said. “We believe that mutual understanding, tolerance, respect and empathy should also be accompanying components when we advocate supremacy of freedom of expression.”

Islamic bloc drops 12-year U.N. drive to ban defamation of religion

(U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the high level segment of the 16th session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, February 28, 2011. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud)

(U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva and urges it "to move beyond a decade-long debate over whether insults to religion should be banned or criminalised," February 28, 2011/Valentin Flauraud)

Islamic countries set aside their 12-year campaign to have religions protected from “defamation”, allowing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Genea to approve a plan to promote religious tolerance on Thursday. Western countries and their Latin American allies, strong opponents of the defamation concept, joined Muslim and African states in backing without vote the new approach that switches focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers.

Since 1998, the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) had won majority approval in the council and at the United Nations General Assembly for a series of resolutions on “combating defamation of religion”. Critics said the concept ran against international law and free speech, and left the way open for tough “blasphemy” laws like those in Pakistan which have been invoked this year by the killers of two moderate politicians in Pakistan. They argued that it also allowed states where one religion predominates to keep religious minorities under tight control or even leave them open to forced conversion or oppression.

Frictions seen easing in troubled U.N. human rights body

(Delegates observe a one-minute silence during the high level segment of the 16th session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, February 28, 2011. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud)

(Delegates at the 16th session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, February 28, 2011/Valentin Flauraud)

The United States and NGO campaign groups say diplomatic shifts on highly-charged issues like religion and Iran in the long-polarised U.N. Human Rights Council could turn it into a more effective body.

U.S. ambassador Eileen Donahoe said emerging accords on tackling religious hatred, Iran’s rights record and unusual cooperation across mutually suspicious regional blocs on Libya could mark a turning point for the forum.

A new blasphemy law … in Ireland?

kabul-blasphemy-demoWhen we hear about blasphemy these days, we usually think cases brought in Muslim countries or efforts by Muslim states to have defamation of religion banned in resolutions at international meetings such as the recent “Durban II” session in Geneva. The issue, which sparked violent protests in the Muslim world in 2006 after a Danish newspaper printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, has been presented as a kind of cultural dividing line between “the West” and “the Muslim world.” It’s not that simple… (Photo: Kabul protest against blasphemy death sentence for Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 31 Jan 2008/Ahmad Masood)

Just look at what’s happened in Ireland this week. The government proposed a new law against “blasphemous libel,” provoking criticism that the move would be old-fashioned at best and an outrageous curtailment of free speech at worst.  Were the traditionally Catholic Irish taking a page from the diplomatic strategy of Muslim countries? Were the bishops trying to flex their dwindling muscles?  The Irish Times story reporting the plan gave no motive for it but wrote: “At the moment there is no crime of blasphemy on the statute books, though it is prohibited by the Constitution.

Not surprisingly, Roy Brown, chief representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in Geneva, reacted by saying it was “totally mind-boggling that a European government should even consider such a dangerous idea given that EU countries — now supported by the United States — have for years been fighting tooth and nail at the United Nations in Geneva and New York against almost  identical proposals from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to get a global ban on ‘defamation of religion’.”

Can the United States fix Durban II?

The United States has decided to participate in planning meetings for the United Nations Conference on Racism in April in order to influence its final declaration. The conference, a follow-up to the 2001 meeting in South Africa that the U.S. and Israel walked out on because the draft declaration called Israel racist (that language was later dropped). Israel and Canada have already announced they would boycott “Durban II,” as the conference is being called, and the Bush administration was opposed to the conference. But the Obama administration has decided to wade into the debate in the hopes of getting a better result. (Photo: United Nations General Assembly, 26 Sept 2008/Eric Thayer)

Apart from the expected criticism of Israel, this conference in Geneva is also due to be a showplace for a drive by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to have the U.N. condemn defamation of religion. The U.N. General Assembly voted for just such a condemnation last December, for the fourth year running. While the non-binding resolution urged member states to provide “adaquate protection against acts of hatred, discrumination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general,” the only religion it mentioned by name was Islam. Western countries opposed that resolution as contrary to the basic rights of free expression and opinion.

In statements in December, the freedom of expression rapporteurs of the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) have called on the United Nations not to issue any such resolution.

Rights experts attack Islam defamation drive at UN

The debate over possible United Nations resolutions condemning defamation of religions is heating up as Islamic countries campaign to have an upcoming U.N. document on racism include such a call. (Photo: United Nations General Assembly, 26 Sept 2008/Eric Thayer)

The document, a follow-up to the final declaration of the 2001 Durban conference on racism, is due out in April. The freedom of expression rapporteurs of the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) have called on the United Nations not to issue any such resolution.

As Reuters correspondent Robert Evans wrote in his news story from Geneva on Wednesday: