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UN Watch in the News

Muslim Leaders Want UN to Outlaw 'Defamation'

Patrick Goodenough
CNS News, February 21, 2006

Disturbed by Muslim leaders' attempts to criminalize any criticism of Islam, human rights campaigners are urging the United Nations to resist pressure to outlaw religious defamation in a resolution creating the U.N.'s new human rights council.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a Saudi-based grouping of the world's 57 Muslim states, wants the resolution's draft text to include a reference to "actions against religions, prophets and beliefs" and to state that "defamation of religions and prophets is inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression."

OIC ambassadors discussed the plan with Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday.

The demand is just one of five steps the OIC says are necessary to defuse the crisis over the publication in European and other newspapers of cartoons satirizing Mohammed, and to prevent recurrences.

The controversy continues to roil the Islamic world, and more than 35 people have been killed in rioting by Muslims offended by what they regard as blasphemy.

The other four steps proposed by the OIC are the adoption of a U.N. General Assembly resolution prohibiting the "defamation of all prophets and faiths"; the passage of legislation in the European Parliament "against Islamophobia"; the adoption of a "code of ethics" for European media; and the implementation of a U.N. media standard " which should cover a definition of freedom of speech in case of religious symbols."

Three human rights groups on Monday appealed to the U.N. to reject the attempt to incorporate the religious language into the text of the resolution that will establish the human rights council.

Negotiators have been wrestling over the draft for weeks. The council would replace the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, whose work was discredited by rights violating nations who used their membership to deflect criticism from their own records.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization, said that including the religious precepts into the charter of the new council "would be appeasement to violence and taint the body at its birth."

In a joint statement with Washington-based Freedom House and the Transnational Radical Party, a human rights and democracy NGO based in Italy, U.N. Watch suggested the OIC move was an attempt to sabotage what has been a difficult process to reform the U.N.'s human rights function.

Neuer called it "a last-minute attempt to derail the train of progress that seeks enhanced scrutiny of states that abuse human rights."

The three rights groups said the U.N. should reject the OIC proposal because the new council's mandate would be to promote rights including freedom of expression, press and religion.

By contrast, the effect of the Islamic plan would be to increase censorship of anything considered offensive to a religion, and to erode the freedom to dissent from a religion.

They said the OIC measure would also result in increased violence.

"If the price to pay for the establishment of the new human rights council is curtailing freedom of expression and religion, and appeasing violence and threats of violence, it is not worth paying."

In an article on the issues at stake in the cartoon dispute, another NGO, the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that just because Muslims object to depictions of Mohammed it does not give them any right under international human rights law to insist that others abide by that view.

"Muslims, like all others, are free to state their religious objections and to press for more respectful treatment," it said. "But they are not entitled to censor the expression of others in the name of their own religious freedom."

OIC's role questioned

Muslims' strong and at times violent reaction to the Mohammed cartoons has prompted bodies like the U.N. and European Union to seek out Islamic representatives to establish ways of ending the controversy.

E.U. foreign affairs chief Javier Solana has been holding talks with religious and political leaders in Egypt, where the proposals on outlawing defamation of religion were discussed.

On Monday, Annan's spokesman announced that the secretary-general had decided to address a meeting in Qatar this weekend of the Alliance of Civilizations, a U.N.-backed initiative to bridge gaps between cultures, co-sponsored by the leaders of Spain and Turkey.

Earlier, Annan and Solana issued a joint statement with OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, condemning the publication of " insulting caricatures" of Mohammed as well as violent reactions which they said "can only damage the image of a peaceful Islam."

Christian Solidarity International, a Swiss-based religious freedom group, believes the OIC has itself played a role in creating a climate for violence and censorship.

In a letter sent to Annan, the group's director, John Eibner, cited several instances in the past in which the OIC and member states had, he said, leveled accusations of blasphemy against U.N. rights rapporteurs and NGOs who criticized abuses carried out in the name of Islam.

In the current cartoon controversy, "the OIC set the stage for anti-free speech demonstrations at its extraordinary summit in Mecca in December 2005," he said.

"The Muslim heads of state resolved to pressure, through a program of joint Islamic action, international institutions including the U.N. to criminalize insults of Islam and its founder, Mohammed."

Eibner noted that on February 4 - the same day the violence erupted with attacks on European embassies in Syria - the OIC had declared publication of the Mohammed cartoons to be an act of blasphemy.

"Blasphemy is punishable by death, according to shari'a law," he pointed out.

Eibner also expressed concern about a ten-year plan of action agreed at the Mecca summit, which he said aimed to prevent free expression at the U.N. about Islam as a legal system and a political ideology.

He urged Annan "not to yield to further acts of intimidation by the OIC aimed at imposing censorship at the U.N."

Copyright 2006, CNS News.com