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A Call from SIAWI (Secularism Is A Women’s Issue) against UN resolutions 61/164 and A/HRC/4/2.12 on ’defamation of religions’

Sunday 3 June 2007, by siawi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Secularism, i.e. separation of religion from politics, has been regularly attacked since its inception by the Catholic Church and ultra conservative political forces in Europe, even in France. During the past two decades, Muslim fundamentalists revived the struggle against secularism and developed multiple strategies at national, European and international levels.
What is at stake is the evolution of the concept of secularism, in which the state, instead of being unconcerned with religions (apart from fulfilling its obligation to guarantee its citizens the individual freedom of practicing their religion), would be obliged to ensure equal political representation of religions.
Again, the defence of secularism is a subject of burning topicality. Secular space goes shrinking and in many countries it has become un-conceivable to dispense of a religious identity, even more so if one belongs to the population of migrant descent.

Muslim fundamentalists rely on the notions of minority rights, religious rights, cultural rights to demand the right to interfere in state affairs in the name of culture and/or religion. They master the art of manipulation of human rights concepts.

Numerous are their recent attempts to replace the general law ( by definition changeable by the will and vote of the people) by religious laws ( by definition immutable and imposed in the name of god to presumed believers).
Canada barely escaped the introduction of religious arbitration courts in family matters, thanks to wide national and international women’s mobilization (2006). Similarly France owe to a determined popular resistance and especially to women’s resistance its final decision not to modify its secular law on religious symbols in schools (2005). However at the same time, a German woman judge relies on what she thinks is ’sharia’ law in a case of divorce (April 2007) and Britain allows in certain cases ’traditional’ courts to substitute themselves to the Kingdom ’s legal courts (2007).

Let us take note of the fact that it were mainly women who were targeted by these legal measures - and this if course made it more acceptable to governments, always willing to trade women’s rights for social peace. Up to the point of accepting that dearly acquired women’s rights now written into laws may not apply to some categories of citizens, due to their ethnic background ( the land of origin of their parents or grandparents) or to their supposed religious affiliation. These women citizens would thus be excluded from the democratic process and frozen into an alien ’nature’, excluded in fact from citizenship.

Let us note too, without surprise, that catholic and Jewish authorities sided with Muslim fundamentalists ’ efforts. During the nineties, women already witnessed their unholy alliance against reproductive rights during the UN World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and during the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing.

It took a new turn when the same politico-religious forces questioned freedom of expression at international level. In this case, women are not their primary targets, and one may hope that other forces will join, even if late, their struggle for preserving total secularism of the state.

Pressure was made on the European Union for the concept of blasphemy to be introduced in the language of the European Constitution. As per their strategic plans devised in their December 2006 meeting in Mecca, the countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference have been lobbying the UN and the Human Rights Council. They were supported by several catholic countries. Together, they finally succeeded : the UN and the HRC passed resolutions ( see below the article by Jeanne Favret Saada) demanding from states ’vigorous measures’ to forbid the ’spreading of ideas and documents.../... defaming religions’. Will be considered defamation ’any action against religions, prophets and creeds’. States should modify accordingly ’ their constitutions, laws and educational systems’.

All this in the name of Human Rights...

Once more we witness the ideological confusion between protecting individuals from racism, discrimination and intolerance and legitimizing the most backward forces in religions. Indeed ’Muslims’ or supposed Muslims must be protected against the first plague, but against the second as well which will force them to bend to rules they have not chosen and the international community to watch the abuse in silence, in the name of respect for creeds.

The experience of those of the Muslim countries who lived under the boot of religious extreme rights show that freedom of consciousness, freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedoms of expression are rights that denied in the very name of religious rights. And it is then also in the name of religious rights and cultural rights that international human rights organizations including the Commission of Human Rights at the UN abstain from intervening.

The experience of these countries also shows that citizens are denied the right to define for themselves their religion and their culture, while the most damageable forms from the point of view of human rights were then imposed on them.

There is another confusion between extreme right politico-religious forces which pretend to be under attack when one does not follow them in all their interpretations and follies — and religion itself. To oppose fundamentalist is thus equated to an attack on the religion they claim to represent, be it Christianity, Islam or other- and there are numerous recent examples of such situations.

It is criminal for the UN and for the HRC to support such a manipulation of human rights concepts.

We call on all freedom loving forces to become fully aware of the seriousness of the situation, in particular women who are first targeted when secularism recedes.

The HRC ( see below) calls on NGOs to suggest adequate ways of implementing these resolutions. No doubt fundamentalists of all creeds will seize the opportunity to support laws that will destroy liberties. We call on NGOs and individuals not to let them occupy the floor and to clearly take a stand viz the HRC.

Beyond, we call for an increased vigilance and for citizens organizations in each of our countries, to stop the changes in their ’constitutions, laws and educational systems’ that would put an end to secularism, i.e. to change identity as citizens for communal identity.

- May 5, 2007

- From: Marie-Dominique Perret
- Sent: Tuesday, May 01, 2007 6:19 AM

Subject: Invitation to contribution

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presents its compliments to non-governmental organizations and has the honour to refer to the General Assembly resolution 61/164 of 19 December 2006, entitled “Combating Defamation of Religions”, which requests the Secretary-General to submit a report on the implementation of the resolution to the General Assembly at its sixty-second session.

Non-governmental organizations are invited to forward contributions, with
regards to initiatives on global dialogue for promotion of a culture of tolerance and peace based on respect for human rights and religious diversity, to this report to the Anti-Discrimination Unit by 13 July 2007. All contributions should be forwarded to Mrs. Marie-Dominique Perret (fax + 41 22 92 890 50 or e-mail: mperret ).

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights seizes this opportunity to renew to non-governmental organisations the assurance of their highest

UN: Towards an offence of “defamation of religions”

by Jeanne Favret-Saada * ( - 1 May 2007)
- URL:

In February 2006, as the “Muhammad’s cartoons” affair was raging, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference unsuccessfully called for the inclusion in the Human Rights Council Charter of the following principle: “freedom of speech is incompatible with defamation of religions and prophets.” It also requested UN General Assembly to pass a resolution condemning « defamation of prophets and of religions”.

It did not succeed but on 8 September, in resolution 60/288 relating to its strategy of struggle against terror the General Assembly gracefully recommended States to undertake combating « defamation of religions ». It did not say how, nor did it say in what the initiative would curb terror. A few days later, President Pervez Musharaf of Pakistan bestrode the new Trojan horse urging the GA to ban “defamation of Islam”. We hoped the fate of the brand new notion would be stopped, but it was forgetting OIC’s obstinacy and UNO’s unlimited capacity to solve insoluble conflicts by wrapping them into cotton. In other words, by producing a shapeless discourse placing side by side dissenting postures of parties at issue, and authenticating these by linking them to former UN resolutions.

Hence, Resolution 61/164 “Combating defamation of religions” during UN GA of 17 December 2006, where the already famous “defamation of religions“ appears lately, after perfect considerations on racism, xenophobia and discrimination, issues that UN righteously combats since its creation. The UN GA did not define the new notion (« defamation of religions ») it described it as “a possible cause for social disharmony”, likely to provoke “human rights violations”. This prompted the Secretary General to table eighteen measures to combat this new scourge. Although remarkably weak, the measures made nonetheless « defamation of religions » enter the UN language. Above all, measures held as a self-evident truth that freedom of the expression should henceforth be coupled with “responsibility” and then be “submitted to legal restrictions that would take into account respect for religions and beliefs”.

If not clearly stated, the intention is however obvious: “defamation of religions” is identified as one of the admitted reasons for curbing freedom of expression (propaganda in favour of war; incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, Article 20 of the International Pact on civil and political rights).

It is indeed uneasy to interpret a UN resolution: scores of them are being passed every year which will remain a dead letter; during the same session, one resolution is incompatible with several others; the wording of decisions proper are often so vague that it is impossible to translate them into action. Nevertheless an obstinate enough pressure group may advance its cause over the months to the point that States are required to make decisions. As concerns « defamation of religions », we are not there yet but getting closer to it. On 30 March 2007, the notion resurfaced at the UN Human Rights council (Geneva), through the voice of Pakistan – this time on behalf of OIC. Here is a Human Rights Council which still has doubts on human rights violations in Darfur but which passes with certainty a resolution urging “the international community” to combat “defamation of religions” (A/HRC/4/L.12) and mainly defamation of Islam.

In the statement of grounds it is clearly stated: “the Council expresses deep concern at attempts to identify Islam with terrorism, violence and human rights violations. It notes with deep concern the intensification of the campaign of defamation of religions, and the ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities, in the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001”.

Objections of legal common sense are numerous: defamation offence (attacks on honour or reputation) should only concern persons, not undetermined beings such as religions; and as regards persons, the offence of discrimination against individuals on account of their religion is already enshrined in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, why this odd notion of “defamation » ? Maybe because the demand followed the « Muhammad’s cartoons » affair, in which OIC accused European press to “defame » the Prophet ; then, OIC found it obvious to broaden the notion of “defamation” from Muhammad-the-person to the Moslem religion. Despite the legal flimsiness of the notion, we have to look out for the political meaning of Resolution L. 12 of last March 30. For it is explicitly paving the way for the adoption at the United Nations of regulations aimed at curbing freedom of expression: sooner or later the “irresponsible” use of the freedom will be punished as a racist act. The council “invites the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, to regularly report on all manifestations of defamation of religions and in particular on the serious implications of Islamophobia on the enjoyment of all rights. It requests the High Commissioner to report to Human Rights Council at its sixth session on the implementation of the present resolution.”

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Council « strongly urges States to take resolute action to prohibit the dissemination of ideas and material ‘defaming religions’ and to prohibit the dissemination of racist and xenophobic ideas and material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitutes incitement to hatred, hostility or to racial and religious violence ». Here, identity between “defamation of religions” and the prior reasons for curbing freedom of expression is fully affirmed.

Therefore, States are requested to modify their Constitutions, laws as well as educating systems thereon. “The Council also strongly urges States within the framework of their own legal and constitutional systems to provide adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions, to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and their value systems and to complement legal systems with intellectual and moral strategies to combat religious hatred and intolerance.”

Finally, the Council « strongly » urges States to closely control all public officials « including members of law enforcement bodies, the military, civil servants and educators, so that in the course of their official duties, they respect different religions … and that training is provided to this effect. » On 47 States, 24 voted in favour of the resolution : Member States of OIC backed by China, Cuba, the Federation of Russia, South Africa, Mexico, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. 14 countries voted against, and 9 abstained.

If we could trust our governments and international bodies we would not pay attention to the inept resolutions of 2006 and 2007. But at least we should be explained why it had been necessary to pass them and what is looming for freedom of expression.

* Jeanne Favret-Saada is a researcher in anthropology. She has recently published a book on the “Muhammad’s cartoons” affair, “How you produce a world crisis with twelve small drawings”, Comment produire une crise mondiale avec douze petits dessins, Paris, 2007, Les Prairies ordinaires.