On 30 March 2007 the United Nation's Human Rights Council (the Council) concluded its 4th regular session in Geneva. The outcome of the session was eagerly awaited since the previous three regular and four special sessions have shown that the Council is as prone to politicised bias as its predecessor the Human Rights Commission. The Council has – among other things – consistently singled out Israel for condemnation while resisting serious scrutiny of Sudan's atrocities in Darfur. Many of the Council's failings stem from the fact that it is bitterly divided between Western and non-Western states with markedly different agendas resulting in very little substantive action being taken by the Council when it comes to protecting human rights.
However, the result of the fourth session – seven resolutions and two decisions (all non-binding) – served to reinforce the divisions within the Council. Three of the decisions and resolutions were carried through with all Western states (a coalition of 11-14 states including Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) voting against. Moreover several of the decisions represent a step in the wrong direction when it comes to the protection and relevance of international human rights.
The most worrying example of the Council pursuing an agenda contrary to the protection of human rights and freedom is the resolution on "combating defamation against religions", tabled by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). According to this resolution all instances of religious discrimination, hatred and defamation must be combated by UN-member states. Yet the resolution is deeply flawed and biased in two aspects.
Firstly, the resolution only specifically mentions Islam and "Islamophobia", which according to the resolution is a particular concern. While it is likely that many innocent Muslims have suffered discrimination after September 11, Muslims minorities in Western countries – against whom the resolution is aimed – enjoy far larger freedom than religious minorities in most Muslim countries, including the ones on the Council.
According to the US State Department's country reports on religious freedom Council members Saudi-Arabia and Pakistan are home to widespread discrimination against both Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities. In Saudi-Arabia public worship of other religions than the official version of Sunni Islam is prohibited and sanctioned with criminal liability. Moreover text-books used in public schools include language which is anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and anti-Shiite.
In Pakistan members of the Ahmadi religion have by constitutional amendment been declared non-Muslim. Moreover according to the report the Pakistani penal code
"prohibits Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims or posing as Muslims, referring to their faith as Islam, preaching or propagating their faith, inviting others to accept the Ahmadi faith, and insulting the religious feelings of Muslims".
The punishment for violation is imprisonment for up to three years. Such discriminatory practises would be unthinkable in any Western state where Muslims are protected by anti-discrimination laws and generally enjoy the right to practice their faith.
The second – and most pressing – problem with the resolution is that the call for combating defamation of religions is at odds with freedom of expression. The resolution should be seen as a consequence of the so called Cartoon- crisis, which ensued after Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a number of drawings of the Prophet Mohammed. This led to riots in many Muslim countries, death threats and calls for conviction of the responsible editors.
However both Danish and French courts have decided that publishing the drawings was within the limits of the right to freedom of expression. Should the resolution be followed it would therefore result in a drastic restriction on freedom of expression and thus the right and ability to publicly debate and criticise religious doctrines, a right central to the functioning of Western style liberal democracy. This is illustrated by Pakistan's blasphemy laws which according to the above mentioned report
"sanction the death penalty for defiling Islam or its prophets; life imprisonment for defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Qur'an; and ten years' imprisonment for insulting another's religious feelings".
The incompatibility of the resolution with freedom of expression also follows from the Cairo Declaration the OIC's own human rights instrument. Article 22 of said charter states that
"Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari'ah".
Accordingly Islamic religious doctrine is put before the right of the individual to express his or her thoughts and follow his or her conscience. It is such a state of affairs that the resolution aims for. If individual freedom including freedom of speech is to retain a meaningful protective sphere at the international level the resolution must be unequivocally rejected, and the right to dissent and subject religion to public debate and criticism upheld.
The fourth session of the Council served as yet another reminder that the Council is not worthy of its mandate and that a majority of non-Western states are determined on abusing the Council for their own agendas, which are often in conflict with the protection of human rights. Western states must now ask themselves how long they will continue to lend legitimacy to a body whose practice merits none.