The UN General Assembly will soon vote on a non-binding resolution that restricts speech that offends religion and in particular offends Islam. Originally, the resolution was introduced by Pakistan and the Organization of the Islamic Conference via the Human Rights Council in 1999. The resolution only referred to Islam but was amended to include other religions in order that it pass and it has passed the Human Rights Council every year since 1999.
Having successfully negotiated the Human Rights Council, Yemen was sufficiently emboldened to introduce it to the General Assembly in 2005. The General Assembly will now have to vote on Resolution 62/145. Interestingly, the reason for the resolution is that there has been a campaign of defamation of religions and to address the issues of religious and ethnic profiling in the post September 11 world.
The resolution, if passed, will significantly impact upon free speech everywhere. This is in spite of the resolution being non-binding. The threat is significant enough that the US felt the need to make a submission to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The US statement simply noted that defamation related laws have been regularly abused by governments in order to restrict the freedom of speech and other human rights.
The resolution is being colloquially referred to as the blasphemy resolution. A quick survey of the recent news on this paints a picture of the likely effect that the passage of this resolution might have of it were to be applied uniformly throughout member states.
Although it is more likely a boon for those governments that head up non-democratic states as a blasphemy resolution could certainly be used to stifle debate. In nations with a much longer, albeit not perfect democratic tradition, there are generally protections for the freedom of speech in place. In some countries like the US this protection is enshrined in the Constitution.
* Random House's decision not to publish a book, The Jewel of Medina, that used as a plot base the marriage of Aisha and Muhammad because it was deemed to be offensive to Muslims;
* A British teacher working in Sudan was sentenced to 15 days in jail because she allowed her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad;
* An Egyptian blogger that was sentenced to four years jail for a critique of Islam; and
* The murder of Theo van Gogh who released a film on the abuse of Muslim women.
It needs to be pointed out that this is an issue that has its roots in a much more distant past. In times prior to the thought that the UN might pass a resolution on this, Islamic countries took care of business themselves and issued fatwas such as the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for the Satanic Verses.
In many ways this is a resolution about creating a world full of fear and intimidation where people cannot speak their minds without fear of running afoul of a resolution such as this one. If anything it is going to increase the tension and stress on the pursuit of religious harmony, perhaps so much so that minority religions in majority Muslim countries will be victimized based on perceived slights.
What I wonder about is how you defame a religion. A religion is an idea or a set of ideas. Is it possible for an idea to have rights?
I am an advocate of free speech and the open and frank discussion and exchange of ideas. This resolution bothers me because it seems designed to provide the framework for the establishment for religious intolerance. Peace and tolerance go hand-in-hand but peace and intolerance do not.
Here's hoping that the resolution does not get the numbers to pass.