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.