Revisiting freedom of expression

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression - everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way - everywhere in the world.”

These are the first two freedoms of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, which has special urgency today. The world economic

crisis has naturally called attention to the last two freedoms he declared, freedom from want and from fear. But freedom of expression and religion got first billing for a reason. These two rights are absolutely fundamental to our humanity. And yet they’ve been under unceasing assault over the course of history.

These assaults continue today. On Friday, the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution that calls on states to limit criticism of religions - specifically Islam. This is the tenth time such a resolution has passed at the UN’s primary human rights body.

Pakistan, on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, began introducing similar resolutions in 1999 arguing that Islam — the only religion specifically cited in the text — must be shielded from unfair associations with terrorism and human rights abuses.

These so-called “defamation of religions” resolutions also have a perfect record at the UN General Assembly, where the latest version passed in December. The resolutions contain some very appealing language, steeped in standard human rights values such as dialogue, harmony, and tolerance - all good things.

But don’t be fooled; the resolutions only give clever lip service to these values.

In reality they are calling for laws and actions that prohibit dialogue by declaring certain topics off limits for discussion, leading to intolerance of any view that some Muslims may find offensive.

Who decides what views defame religion? Governments, of course. And the governments of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have some of the worst records of respecting freedom of expression and belief in the world. Some of Freedom Houses’s lowest-ranking countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran, are frequent sponsors. Other countries with less-than-stellar human rights records, such as Belarus, Venezuela, and Russia, also sign on, seemingly for the purpose of opposing international norms of human rights rather than out of any real solidarity with OIC countries.

Nonetheless, these resolutions present a win-win scenario for OIC countries. They serve to legitimize the repression of minority voices at home, while scoring points with religious leaders and Islamic fundamentalists by fueling views of an antagonistic and “Islamophobic” Western world.

One now rarely hears the term “defamation of religions” without the assertion that it leads to “incitement to hatred and violence,” which is viewed as a legitimate restriction on freedom of expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Never mind that it isn’t possible to defame an idea or belief.

Never mind that human rights law was set up to protect the rights of human beings and not beliefs. This is the next battlefield at the UN and it is not one we should be prepared to lose. — The Christian Science Monitor