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.

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