29 September 2008
23 September 2008
Thank you, Mr President.
We welcome the new Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mr Githu Muigai, and we welcome the call from his predecessor, Mr Doudou Diene, to replace the notion of “the defamation of religions” with the legal concept of incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence. Not only does the former notion have no legal basis, it is a threat to human rights and to religion itself.
Existing instruments such as ICCPR Article 20 already protect believers against expression that constitutes incitement. To go further would be to protect the contents of belief itself. Such protection has no basis in international human rights law. Rights belong to individuals, not ideas.
U.N. resolutions combating the defamation of religions are dangerous, as noted by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms Asma Jahangir, since they can be used to legitimize blasphemy laws that "punish members of religious minorities, dissenting believers and non-theists or atheists”
In Afghanistan, a 23-year-old student named Sayed Pervez Kambaksh sits in prison, convicted of blasphemy for circulating an article critical of wmen's status under Islam. For this he has been sentenced to death. Religion does not need protection from Pervez Kambaksh. He needs protection from those who act in its name.
Ultimately, schemes to safeguard belief by law will defeat themselves since faith flourishes best when left to the free conscience of individual persons.
Geneva is an old city, old enough to have seen the burning alive of Miguel Servetus for heresy on 27 October 1553. Jean Calvin approved, explaining, "There is no question here of man's authority; it is God who speaks, and . . . . we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory." 
Calvin was convinced that his victim had defamed religion (as no doubt was the Afghan judge). Yet every advance in religious understanding begins with someone who speaks the truth as his or her conscience dictates it, no matter who may disagree. Belief depends on the right to doubt, to dissent, to discover. To combat the defamation of religions is, then, in the end, to combat religion.
Would this Council return Geneva to the era of heresy and blasphemy? Or will it work to guarantee to Pervez Kambaksh and to all people, the freedom of expression enjoyed here today? We urge member states to return focus to the protection of persons and to abandon the dangerous notion of the defamation of religions. Thank you, sir. 
1. Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, on combating defamation of religions (Mr Doudou Diène), U.N. Doc. A/HRC/9/12, para. 45, 65.
2. Report of the Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, on elimination of all forms of religious intolerance (Ms Asma Jahangir), U.N. Doc. A/62/280, para. 76.
3. "Blasphemy case shows Afghan divide," BBC News (9 September 2008) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7605395.stm.
4. Jean Calvin, Defensio orthodoxai fidei. Quoted in John Marshall, John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture: Religious Intolerance and Arguments for Religious Toleration in Early Modern and 'early Enlightenment' Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 325.
5. For additional discussion, see Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations, and Is There a Clash of Civilizations? The Failure of the United Nations Response, at www.centerforinquiry.net/UN.
Shortly thereafter, Roy Brown made it through (with one interruption) the following statement on behalf of the Center for Inquiry and the IHEU:
We were pleased to note the desire of Mr Githu Muigai, the new Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, to move the discussion from the idea “defamation of religions” which many agree has no place in human rights discourse, “to the legal concept of incitement to national, racial and religious hatred, hostility or violence”.
We also applaud his proposal to gather data on hate speech in order to make “fully informed, empirically sound and factually robust analysis about this phenomenon”. Racial discrimination and xenophobia are indeed a serious and widespread problem. It is essential when dealing with such a complex issue, involving education, language skills, economic opportunities, deprivation, media sensationalism, and opportunism, that proposed solutions be based on accurate information.
In our view, the term “Islamophobia” is both misleading and unhelpful. It falsely implies that any criticism of Islam is based on “irrational fear” and must lead automatically to hatred of Muslims.
The widespread use of the term “Islamophobia” may actually be exacerbating the problem by confusing the issue. Immigrants, and not only Muslims, do face discrimination, but this problem will not be solved by such catch-all, simplistic labelling. The accusation of “Islamophobia” is now widely used as an ad hominem weapon to silence opponents by equating any criticism of Islam with racism. Mr President, criticism of Islam, or of any other religion, is not racism: it is a human right.
There is now some evidence that the incidence of hostility to Muslims is being exaggerated. We cite for example, the United States government’s latest data on hate crimes which show that [There were 147 reported cases of hate crimes against Muslims in 2006, and 362 reported cases against Jews. Yet the population of Muslims in United States (estimated at 9.5 million) exceeds that of Jews by a ratio of three to two , so] Jews are on average more than three times more likely than Muslims to be the victims of hate crimes even in the United States, which in 2001 was the victim of the world’s worst ever terrorist attack, carried out by Muslims.
Finally, Mr President, we wish to comment on two glaring omissions from the last report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mr Doudou Diene. He makes no mention of attacks on Christians, Bahais , Ahmadis and others that have become commonplace in several Arab states, and in Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh . And whilst he mentions growing Antisemitism in Latin America and its historical roots in Europe, he makes no mention of it in the Muslim world, where according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center : “anti-Jewish sentiment is endemic”. These omissions again call into question the impartiality of that Special Rapporteur.
May we respectfully suggest that, rather than focussing exclusively on “Islamophobia”, States address the deep-rooted Antisemitism and general hatred of “the other” within their own societies?
Thank you, Sir.
http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2006/table1.html http://www.factbook.net/muslim_pop.php http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/US-Israel/usjewpop.html http://www.bahai.org/persecution/iran/update http://www.thepersecution.org/ai/aius0411bd.html http://bangladeshwatchdog.blogspot.com/2006/05/amnesty-international-report-2006.html http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=248
22 September 2008
12) H.Res. 1361 – Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should lead a high-level diplomatic effort to defeat the campaign by some members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to divert the United Nation’s Durban Review Conference from a review of problems in their own and other countries by attacking Israel, promoting anti-Semitism, and undermining the Universal Charter of Human Rights and to ensure that the Durban Review Conference serves as a forum to review commitments to combat all forms of racism.
It is coming out of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Howard Berman, Democrat of California.
19 September 2008
18 September 2008
17 September 2008
At noon I spoke on a panel on "Religion and Freedom of Expression at the Human Rights Council," along with Walid Phares, Naser Khader, and Tarek Fatah (sponsored by the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Center for Inquiry). The session was attended by representatives of several governments. Walid, Naser, and Tarek, as outsiders to the UN system, could speak candor seldom heard within the halls of the Palais. They connected the scrimishes inside the HRC with a wider "war of values" being waged by Islamists against secular, liberal ideals. For my part, I asked what "respect for religions" would demand.
In the final analysis, it is not religions that deserve our respect. A religion is a collection of metaphysical ideas and moral ideals. Ideas are believed or disbelieved; ideals are pursued or rejected. Admiration, appreciation, perhaps, but respect? No. What deserves respect are persons. Surely, the feelings of persons--individuals believers--can be affected when their beliefs are attacked or ridiculed. These feelings are real and important. However, feelings of offense do not generate a right not to be offended.
Respect for persons does not require that we never hurt their feelings, but rather that we treat them as possessing dignity equal to our own, and therefore hold them to the same fundamental intellectual, ethical, and legal standards to which we hold ourselves, to see them as autonomous, self-legislating creatures. Therefore, respect for a person is not only consistent with criticism of a person's beliefs; respect for a person sometimes requires criticism of his or her beliefs. Sometimes in order to respect, we must disagree. Anything less is not respect, but indifference.The debate over "defamation of religions" seems to be galvanizing a response. There is optimism in the air that the resolution can be stopped at the next General Assembly, perhaps by a push led by the U.S.
16 September 2008
On 11 September he released a statement in which he describes Islamism as a form of racism, and urges the Danish government to condemn it during the Durban II:
Later this year, the United Nations will hold a conference on racism. Durban II in Geneva. In spite of this conference, which, like the first, is being hijacked by Islamic countries to support Sharia, the Danish government has chosen to participate. Other countries, including Canada, will boycott it. Now that Denmark chooses to participate, this opportunity must be seized to make a firm stand.
I believe that the Danish government should use Durban II to propose a condemnation of political Islam as a racist ideology. We owe it to ourselves and to our soldiers, who set their lives on the line fighting terrorism on the battlefield, that we at the lofty conferences in the international society act equally firmly and with principle against Islamism.
12 September 2008
We stopped by a lunchtime session by the Sudanese government delegation, on the situation on Darfur. They were giving away sandwiches at the door and peddling dubious versions of recent events. Unfortunately I only got the latter. Remarkably, none of the attending country delegations (including the U.S.) made any comments or questions after the remarks. The only questions came from Roy and a French journalist.
11 September 2008
So far, I have found Switzerland to be an impeccably clean, disciplined, well-ordered, prosperous country (and one, it should be said, with many ways to prevent all but the impeccably clean, disciplined, well-ordered, and prosperous from becoming a part of it).
The Human Rights Council was closed today on account of a national holidy. This afternoon we attended a meeting of the Geneva Forum, an association for the numerous international NGOs based here in the city. The meeting was presided over by the UN representative for the Quakers. Tonight we dined up on the hill in the old city, seated across from the Hotel de Ville, the site of the old city hall, and in the shadow of the Cathedrale St Pierre. It was Jean Calvin's Geneva, and I found myself haunted by the spirit of Miguel Servetus, the man Calvin had burned in October 1553 (for the heresy of questioning infant baptism and doubting that Jesus could have been his own father).
I am thinking of blasphemy as I prepare a statement for the HRC on "combating the defamation of religions," a recent push led by the Islamic states at the United Nations to make "respect for religion" an acceptable constraint on freedom of expression in international human rights law.
This topic is emerging as a hot one for this session of the HRC, as the Special Rapporteur on elimination of all forms of racial discrimination (et al). and the High Commissioner will be delivering reports on the matter next week. Plus, the scheduled April 2009 Durban II conference on racism has many ready to boycott, including the governments of the U.S., Canada, France, Great Britain, and Israel. It is shaping up to be another occasion for politicized bashing of "Islam-bashing."
An excellent freedom of expression NGO from the U.K. called Article 19 just issued a fine statement on the matter along with two leading Egyptian human rights groups.
We could all learn something about quashing heresy from Calvin:
Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man's authority; it is God who speaks, and . . . . we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.
10 September 2008
Some say in ice.
Some say in supercooled magnets.
Here in Geneva, I had a front row seat to what some feared would be the end of the world by black hole, as the Large Hadron Collider was officially initiated today. Over 1,000 magnets, cooled to near absolute zero (colder than deep space) and arranged along at 27 km track under the Swiss-French border, will steer beams of protons at close to the speed of light, in search of the "God particle."
As it happens, I'm staying in Geneva as the guest of a senior scientist from Cern, who will treat me and my colleague Hugo to a personal tour of the LHC. I'll be especially careful not to spill coffee on anything.
09 September 2008
Littman went on, probing the taboo on religious subjects imposed by Uhomoibhi's predecessor: "We understand there are a list of words that we may not use. Can you tell us what that list is?" Uhomoibhi responded without hesitation, "There are no taboos in the Council as far as I am concerned." Littman queried, "There are no words?" Uhomoibhi repeated, "There are no taboos."
"You cannot insult me and insult my belief and say that you are free. You cannot humiliate me and my belief and say that you are free."
Problems arise "when people are opinionated and they think they hold absolute truth." he said. Instead, the President concluded, with something close to exasperation, "Let us be humble. Let us not think we can be god to another person. This is my plea. Because this world is complex, but it is beautiful. This is really my bottom line."
It was an effective statement, but of course it left Littman and the rest of us wondering what exactly it implied. Clearly the matter was close to the President's heart. I think the most charitable reading, which I urged my colleagues to adopt, is that comments on religious subjects may be advanced if done in tones of civility, humility, and mutual respect.
We should take the President at his word, which he has elaborated in media interviews: "No subject is taboo in the Council. Everything that touches on human rights ought to be discussed in total openness. Some believe that to address one subject authorizes them to abuse another. Debates must take place with mutual respect."
ASSOCIATION FOR WORLD EDUCATION
INTERNATIONAL HUMANIST AND ETHICAL UNION
CENTER FOR INQUIRY
by Representative David G. LITTMAN (AWE) – Tuesday (am) 9 September
UNITED NATIONS HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL – Ninth Session (8–26 September 2008)
Annual Report of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights and Reports of the OHCHR… (item 2)
[Words reduced and in square brackets were not pronounced in the 3 minutes available]
Thank you, Mr. President. [This is a joint statement by the Association for World Education (AWE), the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the Center for Inquiry – on the Address by Ms. Navanetham, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Opening of the 9th session of the HRC (“in particular, I refer to the 60th anniversaries of the UDHR.”)]
We congratulate you, sir, on your election and extend a hearty welcome to our new High Commissioner.
As you stated, Madam, in your opening address:
“… we must focus on the challenges that remain in bringing to reality the comprehensive vision of human rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration. This vision is a beacon of hope for the future.”
Madam, you personify for civil society and many here that Shakespeare line: “For now sits Expectation in the air.”
The theme of the 60th anniversary of the UDHR is “dignity and justice for all”. In this context, we maintain that articles 18 on “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and 19 on “the right to freedom of opinion and expression” should be neither diminished nor qualified – other than as indicated in articles 29 and 30.
Six months ago, a veteran Paris-based NGO, the LICRA [Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et Antisémitisme/Inter- national League against Racism and Antisemitism] circulated a substantive statement worldwide signed by thousands [including Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel]: The United Nations versus Human Rights.* The title speaks volumes.
[The key question it posed – and being asked more and more within civil society – is this: “Will 2008 be the year when the United Nations celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and simultaneously destroys its own principles? There is, indeed, cause for great concern because the institution has lost its own way in recent years, becoming a caricature of itself.”]
Surely, sir, it is time for this Council to resolve not to make any further concessions that weaken the principle of “dignity and justice for all.” The universal standards of the United Nations should be upheld, not watered down by cultural relativism or special pleading, nor should restrictions on human rights be dignified with the status of UN Regional Instruments.
We are making available our two joint NGO written statements on this subject: Sixty Years after the UDHR: Threats to the Universality of Human Rights [A/HRC/9/NGO/2]; and The Cairo Declaration and the Universality of Human Rights [A/HRC/7/NGO/96].
350 years ago, Spinoza attempted to substitute the concept of secular law for the 17th century European notions of the Deity as the source of law. On the triumph of the ‘sectarians’ – a term covering religious fundamentalists of all stripes – he was explicit. I quote:
… inasmuch as concessions have been made to their animosity, […] they have gained state sanction for the doctrines of which they are the interpreters. Hence they arrogate to themselves state authority and rights, and do not scruple to assert that they have been directly chosen by God and that their laws are Divine, whereas the laws of the state are human and should therefore yield obedience to the laws of God — in other words, to their own laws.”
He concluded, and I quote “… in a free state every man may think what he likes and say what he thinks.”
And: “I have thus shown […] That it is impossible to deprive men of the liberty of saying what they think.” **
Mr President, we urge all participants at this Council to consider carefully the relevance of Spinoza’s words today.
Thank you, Sir.
* LICRA – Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et Antisémitism / International League against Racism and Antisemitism It was signed by many eminent personalities, including Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel. www.licra.org/news/pdf/get_file.php?file_name=the_united_nations_versus_human_rights__english_version_.pdf
** Conclusion of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670, by Baruch/Benedict de Spinoza, The Works of Spinoza, R.H.M. Elwes, I, chapter XX, pp. 257–66, New York: Dover, 1955]
08 September 2008
04 September 2008
03 September 2008
I arrived in Paris last night and in Montparnasse met up with my colleague Hugo Estrella, the European director for the Center. Today we saw Simone Veil speak at the opening session of a United Nations conference on "Reaffirming Human Rights for All: The Universal Declaration at 60," held at UNESCO Headquarters.
In the city where Eleanor Roosevelt enjoined the General Assembly to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Veil invoked Auschwitz, and the culture of "hate and death" that spurred the creation of the United Nations. 1400 representatives of 537 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had gathered for the 61st annual NGO conference of the UN, and the Center for Inquiry was now among them. Hugo and I had come to enlist allies in the advocacy we will be undertaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva later this month.
At their worst, NGO meetings at the UN are a kind of ritual observance, wherein civil society activists partake in rites of moral self-purification by bathing each other in well-meaning verbiage. This is no exception. The public computer room at UNESCO where I sit is decorated with a temporary display of fabric panels designed to form part of a peace "ribbon" to encircle the Pentagon (one of them says Save the Whales). But these meetings also draw interesting people doing important work. Hugo and I met many of them today, and tonight at a lavish Hotel de Ville reception hosted by the Mayor of Paris.