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United Nations20.04.2009

World Conference Against Racism

The Muslim countries are getting their way. They may have retreated in the preparations for the “Durban II” conference by abandoning an attempt to impose the absurd concept of “defamation of religions”

They may have retreated in the preparations for the “Durban II” conference by abandoning an attempt to impose the absurd concept of “defamation of religions” - which seeks to make it a crime to criticise a religion - but they have just chalked up a great victory by getting the UN Human Rights Council to endorse the idea.

One resolution more, one resolution less? Some people might wonder whether it really matters. The UN system generates loads of resolutions, most of which go unheeded. So why worry? Especially as the Human Rights Council has made such a fool of itself ever since its creation. You would have thought no one paid much attention to an entity that has turned the leading human rights violators into models or arbiters of good conduct.

No one would disagree that the future of the world is not going to be decided within the UN system. But all the same! They have yet again gone too far. Accepting this erosion of the right to criticise religions at the behest of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference not only completely contradicts the freedom of opinion proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also suggests that defending the individual’s right to practice a religion means protecting that religion’s doctrines as well.

It is obviously all right to voice alarm at the fact that Islam is “often wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.” The same goes for objecting to the dissemination of “negative images of certain religions in the media.” But the concept of “defamation of religions” has no basis in national or international law. It is a fallacious and dangerous interpretation of what human rights is about.

What’s more, this pseudo-concept of “defamation of religions” will without doubt sooner or later be used to silence dissidents, especially members of minorities. We can be sure that the charge of blasphemy will be used by some governments to put a stop to criticism and to restrict the freedom of worship of the weaker religious groups.

The Human Rights Council’s adoption of the resolution on “defamation of religions” has swept away what little credibility this Geneva-based institution still enjoyed. But it could be just the first in a long series of disheartening developments. Beware of assuming there will not be more setbacks.

Let’s not be fooled or unwitting accomplices. The new draft final declaration for Durban II - which the UN is organising and which starts on 20 April - has for the time being eliminated the major sources of discord. The concept of “defamation of religions” has been replaced in this 17-page document by “incitement to religious hatred.” But this new formulation itself opens the way to all sorts of interpretations that could threaten rights and freedoms. Worse still, it is the result of a sordid trade-off. There will no longer be any mention of discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” as the western countries had sought, to the opposition of Muslim and African countries, and the Vatican. This western concession has the hallmarks of a shameful capitulation.

We need to act. What’s at stake is the right to think what we want and to get the news and information we want. For this reason, we urge everyone to sign the petition posted simultaneously on the websites of Reporters Without Borders (rsf.org) and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (dohacentre.org). This petition, aims to serve as a reminder of the principles on which there can be no compromise.

Robert Ménard, Director General of Doha Centre for Media Freedom
Jean-François Julliard, Secretary general of Reporters Without Borders