United Nations resolutions justify censorship

18 March 2008
In March 2008 the top United Nations rights body the Human Rights Council passed two resolutions that limit freedom of expression rather than protect it, say numerous human rights organisations

Despite objections from 40 rights organisations from around the world led by ARTICLE 19 and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on 28 March 2008 that turns the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression into a “prosecutor”.

The protesting rights groups, including 21 organisations from Islamic states, say the amendment changes the focus from protecting freedom of expression to limiting it.

ARTICLE 19 and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies “condemn the repeated misuse of the Human Rights Council process to push for an agenda that has nothing to do with strengthening human rights and everything to do with protecting autocracies and political point scoring.”

To help stifling of dissent
The resolution requires the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to report on abuses of the right to freedom of expression when they constitute an act of racial or religious discrimination. The resolution, proposed by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), was passed by 32 council members with 15 abstentions.

Critics say the amendment will help to justify censorship and the stifling of dissent.

“The change to the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on free expression is dramatic. It turns someone who is supposed to defend freedom of opinion into a prosecutor whose job is to go after those who abuse this freedom,” says Reporters Without Borders (RSF), one of the 40 organisations who appealed to the council not to amend the rapporteur’s mandate.

Defamation of religion to be prohibited
A day prior, on 27 March 2008, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution proposed by Islamic countries saying it is deeply concerned about the defamation of religions and urging governments to prohibit it. Canada and Europe opposed the resolution, which was adopted 21-10, with 14 abstentions.

Although the text refers frequently to protecting all religions, the only religion specified as being attacked is Islam, making specific reference to the increased “ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities in the aftermath” of 11 September 2001.

The resolution expresses “grave concern at the serious recent instances of deliberate stereotyping of religions, their adherents and sacred persons in the media.”

Growing trend
Similar resolutions that allow for free expression to be restricted to ensure respect for religions have been passed since 2002. IFEX members, such as ARTICLE 19 and Freedom House, have campaigned extensively against the growing trend of using religious anti-defamation laws to limit free speech. IFEX – the International Freedom of Expression Exchange – represents 81 organisations world-wide.

The argument against the resolutions is that religious believers have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs and are protected as such in international law. But they cannot expect their religion to be free from criticism.

“The states chose to focus their efforts on protecting religion itself, not the believers and not freedom of religion,” says ARTICLE 19.

Nor is this the first time the Human Rights Council, in place for nearly two years, has come under attack for being ineffectual. Reporters Without Borders has sharply criticised the council’s recent decision to withdraw the Special Rapporteurs on Cuba, Belarus and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, countries “where serious human rights violations are committed every day.”

This article is based on a text which was published in IFEX Communiqué Vol 17 No 13 on 1 April 2008.



IFEX – 1 April 2008:

‘IFEX members condemn UN resolutions supporting limits on free speech’

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and ARTICLE 19 – 31 March 2008:

‘UN Human Rights Council Undermines Freedom of Expression’

Reporters Without Borders – 31 March 2008:

‘UN Human Rights Council turns special rapporteur on free expression into prosecutor’

Read more

ARTICLE 19 – 28 March 2008:

‘Petition: 40 civil society organisations call on the Human Rights Council to protect special mandate on Freedom of Expression’

Human Rights Watch – 28 March 2008:

‘UN: Rights Council Chooses Consensus Over Victims’

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