Defusing the defamation issue

Joelle Fiss   25 mars 2011

In the last few years, it had become a recurring, and thoroughly depressing, event in the diplomatic calendar. In the United Nations General Assembly and the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC), Muslim countries have lined up to push through resolutions denouncing the “defamation of religion” as a threat to human dignity. Western governments, backed by liberty-minded lobby groups, campaigned against these motions, on the grounds that this language could crimp free speech and validate the persecution of religious dissidents. In particular, libertarians have argued, any establishment of the notion that faiths (rather than human beings) need protecting will make it easier for countries to pass, and harshlyenforce, blasphemy laws.

But this week, the logjam appeared to break, to the relief of all sides. In the latest HRC resolution, promoted by Pakistan with the quiet approval of the United States, the words “defamation of religion” were conspicuously absent. Instead, the resolution simply deplored all manner of manifestly bad things: intolerance, discrimination on religious grounds, negative stereotyping and so on. It was passed, by consensus, on March 24th. For the Obama administration, the defusing of the “defamation” issue was a diplomatic coup. It vindicated the view that both the rights council, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) which rallies the Muslim vote in diplomatic forums, can respond well to constructive engagement: an opinion that has been mockingly dismissed on America’s political right.

Suzanne Nossel, an American diplomat who deals with human rights, said the energy which had been devoted to squabbling over “defamation” could now be used in more positive ways, including practical steps to protect members of religious minorities. Roy Brown, who watches the rights council on behalf of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, a lobby group that opposes theocracy and religious privilege, hailed the new resolution as a big step forward: it had struck down the notion that religions, as opposed to the individuals that followed them, needed shielding. He would have been happier still if the resolution had included a more explicit denunciation of hate-speech, and had spoken about the rights of those who profess no religion.

This week’s breakthrough marked the culmination of months of work by Western diplomats and campaigners. They have lobbied on the one hand to persuade countries not to vote for “defamation of religion” resolutions, and on the other to convince Islamic countries that there might be better ways to defend the interests of Muslim believers. The margin of support for such resolutions had been slipping steadily in recent years, prompting critics to claim that the “defamation” camp simply climbed down this time because it might have faced an embarrassing defeat.

Two recent assassinations in Pakistan—a provincial governor and a Christian cabinet minister (see picture) were killed for daring to suggest a reform of the blasphemy laws—also influenced the atmosphere at the Geneva council. Shehrbano Taseer, the daughter of the slain governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, spoke ata panel discussion in Geneva earlier this month and “her presence made it impossible for UN delegates to turn a blind eye to the victims of blasphemy laws,” said Joelle Fiss of Human Rights First, a campaign group based in the United States. Her group has compiled a list of 70 recent cases, in 15 countries, where blasphemy laws led to gross abuses of human rights. Regardless of the verdict, blasphemy trials can inflame mobs to go on the rampage in the belief that they are defending their religion. During one such trial in Indonesia last month, of a Christian accused of insulting Islam, rioters attacked the court and burned churches.

A UN agency in the sedate atmosphere of Geneva may not be able to stop assassinations or riots in distant places, but as of this week, there seemed to be less risk of such actions getting implicit encouragement frombadly chosen diplomatic language.