Introduced and translated from the Danish by Bruce Bawer
Jacob Mchangama, born in 1978, is chief lawyer at the Danish think tank CEPOS and visiting lecturer in international human rights at the University of Copenhagen. He blogs regularly for the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende and is a frequent debate participant and expert commentator both in the print and electronic media. In this essay written exclusively for rights.no, Mchangama examines the bizarre relationship between the UN – an organization founded to defend human rights – and the countries belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which are among the world’s worst human-rights offenders.
The UN, the OIC, and “Defamation of Religion”
By Jacob Mchangama for HRS
On November 12, the third committee of the UN’s General Assembly passed a resolution regarding the fight against ”defamation of religion,” which will very likely be approved by the General Assembly itself. This will mark a sad 10-year anniversary of the effort in the UN by the Muslim member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to limit freedom of speech. In 1999, the newly formed Human Rights Commission passed its first resolution on ”defamation of religion,” and every year since it has been succeeded by a similar resolution in either the Human Right Commission, the General Assembly, or the Human Rights Council. The intention of all these resolutions is to prohibit criticism of Islam and thus turn a religious dogma into an international legal commitment that trumps freedom of speech. For example, the resolution takes exception to ”psychological violence” against ”holy places and religious symbols” even as it praises several countries for having passed laws to prevent ”defamation of religion and negative religious stereotypes.” The resolution encourages all UN member states to outlaw defamation of religion.
The effort to employ human rights to forbid the criticism of Islam has yet to result in a legally binding instrument. But in addition to the many resolutions against defamation of religion, the OIC countries are working to draw up an additional protocol to the UN’s Convention on Racial Discrimination, so that its prohibition of ”hate speech” will also apply to religion. This additional protocol was discussed in Geneva earlier this month by the so-called ad hoc committee. In a letter to the committee chairman, the OIC maintained that Denmark and the Netherlands (in the cases of the publication of the Muhammed cartoons and Geert Wilders’s film Fitna, respectively) have deliberately mocked the person of the Prophet Muhammed with the intention of hurting Muslims’ feelings. Therefore, says the OIC, “the claim that human rights should only apply to individuals is not credible.”
The notion of defamation of religion thus turns the entire concept of human rights on its head and protects abstractions such as religions from individuals instead of protecting individuals against freedom-restricting religious dogmas. This can lead to serious consequences for freedom of expression, as illustrated by the experience of the Egyptian blogger Kareem, who is now serving the fourth year of a prison sentence for having insulted Islam by criticizing Islamic dogmas and the oppression of religious minorities in Egypt.
That the resolutions on defamation of religion are capable of winning majority votes in UN bodies demonstrates that the UN’s activities in the field of human rights are under the control of an unholy alliance of some of the world’s worst violators of human rights. For example, the most recent resolution on defamation of religion was sponsored not only by Syria (on behalf of the OIC), but also by Venezuela and Belarus. It is also the custom for Russia, Cuba, and China to add their voices to proposals from the OIC and vice versa. The logic behind this voting pattern is clear: while Russia, Cuba, and China help the OIC countries to tone down criticism of Islam and of oppression in OIC countries, the OIC countries help Russia, Cuba, and China to prevent criticism of these countries’ many violations of fundamental human rights. Thereby they form an alliance that is able to oppose Western countries’ attempts to turn the UN into a credible and effective forum for the protection of international human rights.
That the undemocratic states cover up for one another is demonstrated by the so-called Universal Periodic Review, in which each of the UN member states is expected to report on its own human-rights record and to make critical comments about human-rights conditions in other member states. Instead of making use of the UPR to bring human-rights violations into focus, countries like China, Russia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia have used it as an opportunity to praise one another. For example, Pakistan celebrated Saudi Arabia for promoting “a spirit of tolerance among all people,” while Russia eulogized China for its international human-rights record. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia chose to be critical of the Netherlands, which it accused of “unacceptable exploitation of freedom of expression” in the case of Geert Wilders’s film Fitna.
The only surprise in this whole indefensible situation is that Western counties – with Scandinavian countries like Norway in the lead – continue to support the UN. In an official description of Norway’s human-rights policy, for instance, one can read that
The objective of Norway’s multilateral and bilateral human-rights policy is to ensure better human-rights records. The most important multilateral fora for this effort are the UN’s General Assembly and the UN’s Human Rights Council.
As long as the UN is dominated by undemocratic states, alas, this objective is hopelessly unrealistic. By their very nature, undemocratic states such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba have no motive to make the UN’s protection of human rights effective. The only reason why the regimes that run these countries are in power, after all, is that they systematically violate human rights. If they permitted freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and free elections, their people would probably show them the door.
Given all this, Western countries – including Norway – must do some serious thinking about whether their continued unconditional support for the UN’s human-rights apparatus doesn’t, in fact, lend legitimacy to a system that has long since squandered its legitimacy. If freedom of speech and other human rights are to be advanced rather than limited by the UN, it is high time for a showdown. A good start would be to turn to the place where it really hurts – namely, the pocketbook. It is, to a large extent, the West that finances the UN – which means that the West is being made a laughingstock on its own dime. Future funding of the UN’s human-rights activities should be made contingent upon noticeable improvements in the organization’s practices in this area. If this doesn’t help, Western countries must simply boycott the Human Rights Council and create an alternative institution whose membership is limited to democratic states.