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‘Defamation’ proposal passes U.N. committee but faces declining support

WASHINGTON (BP)–Religious freedom advocates welcomed the continued decline in international support for the concept of “defamation of religions” as evidenced in a recent vote in the United Nations.

The United Nations’ Third Committee approved a “defamation of religions” resolution by 76-64 with 42 abstentions, but the document’s passage came by a margin less than half of that from the previous year. In 2009, the Third Committee — also known as the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee — endorsed a similar resolution by 81-55 with 42 abstentions.

The U.N. General Assembly will vote on the non-binding resolution in December.

Opponents believe the resolution, and the concept on which it is based, would harm global religious freedom and provide support for anti-blasphemy laws like those in some Muslim states. The proposal calls for the condemnation of messages that vilify religions and can lead to violence. It appears to provide protection primarily for Islam, some critics say.

Southern Baptist religious freedom leader Richard Land said, “All friends of freedom of religion should draw encouragement from the fact that every year more and more nations either abstain or vote against these resolutions.

“These anti-blasphemy laws are thinly disguised appeals to subvert freedom of speech and freedom of religion by making it illegal to make any criticism of Islam,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The ERLC has been working alongside our government and other concerned parties both in the United States and overseas to block the perfidious, anti-blasphemy resolution from being approved [by the U.N.].”

In October, Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy, and representatives from other religious freedom groups expressed their opposition to the resolution in meetings at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Members of the religious freedom coalition met with about 25 country delegations in all.

“I was very impressed by the number of officials we talked to who were very open about their opposition to the resolution, much more than in past years,” Duke said. “Some of these countries had previously voted for the resolution, but now that they understand that it calls for government suppression of religious speech, they are not supportive. I anticipate that support for the resolution will continue to deteriorate as countries become fully aware of the devastating impact it will have on religious freedom and speech.”

Leonard Leo, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said, “Each year, more and more countries are recognizing that laws protecting religions from ‘defamation’ or criticism increase intolerance and human rights violations, instead of reducing these problems. Religious intolerance is best fought through efforts to encourage respect for every individual’s human rights, not through national or international anti-blasphemy laws.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, said the latest U.N. action “marks a continued move in the right direction, and we’re encouraged by the outcome” of the vote.

“There’s no question this effort to protect Islam represents a serious threat to religious freedom internationally — and to Christians, specifically, who face grave danger for practicing their faith in predominantly Muslim countries,” Sekulow said.

The U.N. Human Rights Council –- or its predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights — has approved a “defamation of religions” resolution every year since 1999. In March, the Human Rights Council voted 20-17 in favor of such a resolution, with eight abstentions. The U.N. General Assembly first approved such a resolution in 2005, but the proposal has lost support with every vote since 2006, when it passed by 57 votes.

Last December, the General Assembly voted 80-61 for the resolution, with 42 abstentions. It is not unusual for the General Assembly to pass the same, or a similar, non-binding resolution year after year.

Morocco sponsored this year’s resolution on behalf of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has been the primary force behind the proposal since its inception.

This year’s resolution urges countries to protect “against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from vilification of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general.” It also expresses concern about cases of intolerance, discrimination, intimidation, coercion or violence, including those “motivated by Islamophobia, Judeophobia and Christianophobia,” but it mentions only Islamic minorities as an example of those who are discriminated against by laws and regulations.

In explaining the United States’ Nov. 23 vote against the resolution, John Sammis expressed appreciation for revisions in the resolution but said it “still seeks to curtail and penalize speech.”

“The changes that have been made from the original tabled version, while representing an important gesture, unfortunately do not get [to] the heart of our concerns — the text’s negative implications for both freedom of religion and freedom of expression,” said Sammis, a deputy U.S. representative to the U.N.

He also said, “[H]uman rights are held by individuals — not by governments, institutions or religions — and language in the resolution that addresses human rights should reflect this.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken against the “defamation of religions” concept and voiced opposition to the resolutions.

USCIRF is a bipartisan, nine-member panel that advises the White House, State Department and Congress regarding the condition of religious liberty overseas. Land is a USCIRF commissioner.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.