An Anti-Blasphemy Measure Laid to Rest
An essential battle for freedom is won at the U.N.


Nina Shea

A long-term campaign by the U.N.’s large Muslim bloc to impose worldwide blasphemy strictures — like those in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran — was given a quiet burial last week in the Human Rights Council, the U.N.’s main human-rights body. At the session that ended in Geneva on March 25, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), sensing defeat, decided not to introduce a resolution calling for criminal penalties for the “defamation of religions” — a resolution that had passed every year for more than a decade. This is a small but essential victory for freedom.

The lessons in how this campaign rose and fell will be important in protecting the international human rights of freedom of expression and religion against other threats, particularly as the U.S. engages with the new order in Egypt and other Arab states.

The OIC’s anti-defamation effort was inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous 1989 fatwa, directing “all zealous Muslims to execute quickly” the British author Salman Rushdie and others involved with his book TheSatanic Verses. While not explicitly embracing vigilantism, the Saudi Arabia–based OIC, an organization of 56 member states, quickly endorsed Khomeini’s novel principle: that Western law should be subject to Muslim measures against apostasy and blasphemy.

The OIC worked to institutionalize this principle within the United Nations. By 1999, it began introducing resolutions annually in the Council’s predecessor (the now-discredited Human Rights Commission) to condemn any expression that could be construed, however broadly, as “defamation of religions” — but meaning, specifically, criticism of Islam.

These resolutions turned the liberal, half-century-old international human-rights regime on its head. “It deviates sharply from the historically rooted object of international human rights protections by addressing the interests of religious institutions and interpretations, rather than the rights of individuals,” as Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), explained to Congress in 2009.

That the term “defamation of religions” was undefined and based on an amorphous concept, with a U.N. survey showing no common practice among member states, made it all the more threatening. Though the resolutions were non-binding, they gained stature as a U.N. agenda perennial. Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick once observed that such resolutions tend to seep like “groundwater” into international court and commission decisions.

In 1999 and 2000, the anti-blasphemy resolutions were adopted by consensus, with, inexplicably, the U.S. joining in. In 2001, the West began to vote against them, but, as a “public” appointee to the U.S. delegation in Geneva in 2001, I was told by the State Department to stop debating the issue with my Egyptian counterpart, who led the drafting committee — it was just too sensitive. Without Western support, each year, until now, OIC resolutions to this effect have passed in what purports to be the premiere global human-rights forum.

The resolution’s popularity peaked with the 2005–06 Danish cartoon crisis. Speaking for the OIC, Pakistan typically introduced these resolutions, arguing in words calculated to appeal to Western liberals: “Unrestricted and disrespectful freedom of opinion creates hatred and is contrary to the spirit of peaceful dialogue and promotion of multiculturalism.” Non–OIC members, even democracies, voted for the resolution. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour signaled their support. Emboldened, the OIC began introducing the concept in other U.N.-sponsored fora, such as the General Assembly itself, where “defamation against religions” resolutions have easily passed.

However, in 2007, support within the Council declined, and the “yes” votes steadily eroded thereafter. By the spring 2010 Council session, the resolution was a mere four votes short of defeat. This year, the OIC did not have the confidence to introduce it.

This sudden shift came about because, in 2006, the Bush administration took the lead in defending free speech, energetically pressing Council members to oppose the resolution. The EU also became engaged, emphasizing the need to protect individuals, who “should not be viewed as mere particles of homogeneous and monolithic entities.” Until then, the West member states had been unfocussed and unwilling to push back on a controversial, religiously framed issue.


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