29 September 2008

U.S. State Department rejects "defamation of religions"

On the occasion of the release of its 2008 International Religious Freedom Report on 19 September, the U.S. State Department rejected the concept of "defamation of religions," and affirmed the right of individuals to criticize religions. From Ambassador John Hanford's statement:
The United States advocates religious freedom for all faiths, which means we take a leading role in defending the religious freedom of Muslims around the world. However, it is because of this commitment that we take issue with efforts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and its members like Pakistan and Egypt, in promoting the problematic concept of defamation of religions at the United Nations. As Secretary Rice mentioned a moment ago, this flawed concept seeks to weaken the freedoms of religion and expression by restricting the rights of individuals to share their views or criticize religions; in particular, Islam. The OIC's approach to defamation of religions is inconsistent with international human rights law, and is an attempt to export the blasphemy laws found in several OIC countries to the international level.

23 September 2008

Miguel Servetus haunts Geneva

The room was still buzzing from the exchanges between Egypt, the President, and Littman when I took the floor to summon the ghost of Miguel Servetus, who was burned alive just outside Geneva in 1553 for defaming religion:

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.[1] 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”[2]

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.[3] 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." [4]

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. [5]


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

"This is impossible, sir."

Today David Littman was stopped cold by Egypt and the Council president while trying to read a statement on Islamaphobia and antisemitism. Stepping away from the microphone, he exclaimed, "This is impossible, sir."

Shortly thereafter, Roy Brown made it through (with one interruption) the following statement on behalf of the Center for Inquiry and the IHEU:

Mr President,

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

U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs concerned about Durban

Our D.C. lobbyist Toni Van Pelt has alerted me to this bill, which should go before the U.S. House of Representatives this week:

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

Update on Agenda item 9: NGO statements postponed until Monday

The NGOs place on the schedule got bumped by the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Liberia, who needed to speak because she is leaving Geneva this weekend, apparently. 

Time for a large (Danish!) beer.

Agenda Item 9: blasphemy

Today is the debate on "combating the defamation of religions." The Council welcomed Githu Muigai, the new Special Rapporteur on racism, to open Item 9: Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance, follow-up and implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. He summarized the current report of his predecessor, Doudou Diene's report, which, to our surprise, recommended a shift away from the notion of defamations of religions to the legal instrument of incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence.

In the interactive dialogue with member states, France and then Belgium came out strongly, saying that people have rights, religions do not, and "the defamation of religions" has no place in human rights law. Almost as if they had read my statement (to come this afternoon we hope).

In his response to member states, Mr. Muigai clarified his position on the "shift" from defamation. This shift would eliminate "controversial nomenclature" while retaining the substance of the concerns and returning focus to the victims. He closed by expressing his support for the U.N. program on the Alliance of Civilizations, with which he has initiated a "dialogue." With that, the Special Rap. departed the floor, leaving behind a question mark about his commitment to freedom of expression.

Late in the day, Denmark spoke on behalf of the European paramount to insist on a distinction between criticism of religions and incitement to religion hatred, and to resist the integration of the "defamation of religions" into human rights law.

18 September 2008

Waiting to speak

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in the house this morning to present the results of a "High Level Fact-Finding Mission" established by the HRC after an Israeli attack in Gaza that resulted in 19 deaths. Most of the afternoon was given to agenda item 7, Human Rights Situation in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories.

Meanwhile we are waiting in the wings to make statements on religious threats to women's rights, under an agenda item concerning "integration of the rights of women into the U.N. system." The next joint statement by CFI and IHEU is going to test the ground rules for debate under the new regime.

17 September 2008

European press for Secular Conscience

The Secular Conscience is beginning to get some attention from the European press, with recent reviews in New Humanist and The Tablet, and a full-page interview on page 2 of the conservative Italian daily Il Foglio.

CFI releases report on "Islam & human rights: Defending universality at the United Nations"

At today's session and at a joint press conference with IHEU, we released a new Center for Inquiry report (authored by me and Colin Koproske, a brilliant young graduate student in political science at Oxford) entitled "Islam & human rights: Defending universality at the United Nations." The report is now available for download at CFI.

NGOs speak out for freedom of expression at the Human Rights Council

This morning the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies convened an excellent session at the Human Rights Council to critique the movement at the United Nations "combating the defamation of religions," which is being led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In resolutions adopted since 1995, the General Assembly has called for freedom of expression to be limited out of "respect for religions and belief." The representatives of these Egyptian human rights organizations were particularly effective in pointing out that such resolutions will only embolden the suppression of dissent within Islamic states.

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

Naser Khader calls on Denmark to condemn Islamism at Durban II

I'm at the Bar Serpentine outside of the Council chambers, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Naser Khader, member of parliament and leader of the Liberal Alliance in Denmark. On my table is a stack of CFI reports entitled, "Islam & Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations," which will be released tomorrow our informal session with IHEU. Khader is a featured speaker at the session.

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

Lunch with Sudan

Roy Brown and I encamped at the Bar Serpent outside the HRC chambers for most of the day to collaborate on some statements and plan for next Wednesday's "informal session" on Religion and Freedom of Expression at the Human Rights Council.

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

Blasphemy in Geneva

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

World Doesn't End, Officially

Some say the world will end in fire,
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

No taboos, says the new Council President, but . . .

Yesterday afternoon the NGOs at the Human Rights Council were invited to a meeting with the new President of the Council, Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi of Nigeria. The Center for Inquiry delegation was sitting with the irrepressible David Littman, who spoke up towards the end of the discussion period. He called the President a "watchman," the protector of civil society against those Council member states who would target NGO representatives with ad hominem attacks.

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."

"But," he began, "your responsibility is to know that your freedom and my freedom are one," with which he launched into a lucid philosophical passage on freedom and constraint, with shades of Rousseau (but which one, Rousseau the father of the revolution, or Rousseau the father of the Terror?).

"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."

Growing increasingly emotional, the President intoned, "I am not less human than you are. You cannot ascend a high moral pedestal and treat me as nothing."

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."

Spinoza speaks at Human Rights Council

Today, David Littman will distribute and read a joint statement by the Association for World Education (AWE), the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and the Center for Inquiry. Littman has the distinction of early being kicked out of the Council for angering the OIC delegations. A number of observers have suggested that the NGO statements during the 8th session would not have provoked the OIC had they not singled out Islam or Shari'ah for comment. That hypothesis will be put to the test today. This statement refrains from specifics and instead channels the prophet of free thought, Spinoza.






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

At the Palais: The New High Commissioner

This afternoon the Center for Inquiry delegation arrived at the Human Rights Council and met up with Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Roy and our other allies are wondering how the new President of the Council will treat his predecessor's procedural ruling prohibiting the discussion of religion by NGOs. The Center for Inquiry's first joint statement, in response to the new High Commissioner's address, will be read tomorrow by David Littman of the Association for World Education. Well, he will begin reading it. Chances are he will not be allowed to finish.

We missed the opening address by the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. A telling extract, on the troubled Durban II world conference on racism, scheduled for April 2009: "I do not believe that 'all or nothing' is the right approach to affirm one's principles or to win an argument. Should differences be allowed to become pretexts for inaction, the hopes and aspirations of the many victims of intolerance would be dashed irreparably."

She not referring to the controversial declaration produced by the August 2008 Durban preparatory meeting in Abuja, Nigeria--which inveighed against freedom of expression and breathed not a word about Darfur. Instead, she was chastising the U.S., Canada, France, U.K. and Israel, for threatening to boycott the April meeting if it appears like it will degenerate into more politicking by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned states.

04 September 2008

Best session at the NGO conference

The Geneva NGO Special Committee on Human Rights  sponsored what was hands-down the best session of the day. The topic was partnerships between NGOs and law firms, but moderator Hillel Neuer, the highly combustible representative of UN Watch, turned the discussion session into a roundtable on the recent undermining of freedom of expression at the Human Rights Council (HRC)

This was the first time at this conference I had heard anyone mention it from the podium. For several years, states from the Organization of the Islamic Conference have advanced resolutions to combat "the defamation of religion," which have passed handily. In March, the OIC, aided by Russia, China, Cuba, and the so-called non-aligned states, succeeded in altering the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression to include monitoring and reporting on "abuses" of expression on matters of religion. In late August, an Abuja, Nigeria regional meeting (in preparation for the Durban II conference on racism) issued a Declaration that calls on states to "avoid clinging inflexibly to free speech . . . with absolute disregard to religious feeling."

One would have thought that the UN would be a citadel for freedom expression, but it has now become home to blasphemy prohibitions. As I mentioned during the panel discussion today, this taboo is now in effect in the chambers of the HRC itself. Late in the eighth session of the HRC, an NGO representative attempted to raise questions about OIC-backed statements of "Islamic human rights," and he was interrupted by the Pakistani delegation, which claimed that even to discuss such matters was an insult to his faith. The Council President subsequently ruled that NGOs may not make "judgments" about religion in their statements before the HRC. As we enter the ninth session, it seems that certain OIC states have succeeded in defining the terms of the conversation.

03 September 2008

Reaffirmer les droits de l'Homme pour tous

After a long month and a half of writing, and a brief musical interlude in Seattle, my nose is back to the blogstone. The Secular Conscience is starting to get some attention in Europe, and I am in Paris and Geneva for the month of September on assignment from the Center for Inquiry.

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.

Earlier in the afternoon, it was another Holocaust survivor,  the former French Ambassador to the UN Stephane Hesel, who spoke of the central paradox of the UN. Hesel, who participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration, pounded on the table and pointed out that the institution was formed by free democracies but is now dominated by states that are not, and many that are openly hostile to liberal rights.