Good News! A Victory for Free Speech. But it’s not all good news…

I don’t know how many of you have been following the controversy in the UN concerning the upcoming Durban II conference on Human Rights to be held in Geneva in April.

Media Watch has a nice summary of the issue and the response of several western countries (including Canada – Yea!):

A so-called “racism conference” due to take place in Geneva in April has been boycotted by the USA because the “outcome document” upon which it is based includes a call to ban “defamation of religion” and focuses on human-rights abuses by Israel while ignoring those of other countries.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference has been lobbying for years to get an anti-defamation of religion motion passed, largely as a means to outlaw criticism of the human-rights abusing Islamic governments which support it.

Israel and Canada have already announced that they would boycott Durban II.

So, it is very significant that the conference organizers have revised the agenda and quietly dropped the “defamation of religion” component of the proposed declaration. This, for the time being, restores the freedom for those who want to criticize religion to do so without criminal charges being laid.

But all is not well. There are no explicit references to protections for non-believers or those who choose to change or renounce their religion.

In my opinion, religions don’t have rights. Individuals have rights. And although they are protected by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is clear that many signatory countries do not abide by this declaration.

Nonetheless, this is a significant positive advance.

Here’s a nice summary  from the National Secular Society of the issue, the victory, and that which remains still to achieve.


The proposals by Islamic countries for an international ban on “defamation of religion”, which were to be discussed at an anti-racism conference in Geneva called Durban II organised by the United Nations Human Rights Council, have been dropped from the meeting’s draft declaration.


The defamation of religion text had been included after Islamic countries lobbied for them following a 2005 furore over Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed. But alarm has spread through Western countries about the implications of the proposals and an increasing number of countries were threatening to boycott the meeting unless they were dropped.

The new draft proposals also dropped criticism of Israel and passages concerning reparation for slavery, which African countries had been seeking. But some issues on which Western liberals were keen were also excluded: a proposal to challenge discrimination against homosexuals and protection for atheists or apostates. The new draft, put together by Russian facilitator Yuri Boychenko with Belgian, Egyptian and Norwegian diplomats, has now to be examined by regional groups at the United Nations.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said: “We now have a good, solid basis for states to consider as we enter the final stretch leading up to the Review Conference. I really hope that this marks the necessary breakthrough needed to achieve consensus on a text that must offer concrete help to hundreds of groups and millions of individuals who are subjected to racism and other forms of intolerance all across the world. No continent, indeed no individual country, is free of these dangerous phenomena, and it would be inexcusable if states failed to reach consensus on such important issues.”

But Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), who has done much to challenge and raise awareness of the draft document, said that although the new draft offers some protection to believers — paragraph 10 mentions only Christians, Muslims and Jews as being victims of “phobias” — it offers nothing to non-believers or apostates who are frequently under attack, especially in Muslim counties.

In a briefing paper for delegates, IHEU says:

We urge delegations to recognise that all are entitled to protection from discrimination, whatever their belief or lack of belief. We therefore respectfully suggest either that the list of specific types of discrimination be deleted from paragraph 10, or the list be expanded to include Atheists, unbelievers and apostates.

We are equally concerned that anti-Arabism is included in the list, while no mention is made of the anti-Westernism endemic in many parts of the world. Again, we would respectfully suggest that either the reference to anti-Arabism be deleted or that the list should be extended to include anti-Westernism.

Last week Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, had a meeting with top Foreign Office officials discussing IHEU’s concerns about several aspects of the Durban II and wider concerns about the operation of the UNHRC. These are issues on which he has worked with IHEU.
Following the Foreign Office meeting he said: “Defamation of religion laws were top of the agenda and we were delighted to be assured of the determination to stand firm against them by the UK Government and its EU partners. This is great news and the Government generously recognised the contribution we have made in drawing worldwide attention to the growing clamour of Islamic states for defamation proposals since they were first mooted.”

More detail of the meeting will be circulated to members in the next quarterly Bulletin.

Roy Brown told Newsline from the UNHRC in Geneva that the revised document was “close, but not close enough” to being acceptable. “We’ll keep plugging away,” he said.

20 March 2009


1 Comment

Filed under animal rights, Athesim, human rights, humanism, politics, religion, social commentary

One response to “Good News! A Victory for Free Speech. But it’s not all good news…

  1. Jim

    A step in the right direction!

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