By Peter Jacob
The United Nations Human Rights Council in its 13th Session passed a resolution called ‘Combating Defamation of Religions’ in Geneva on March 25, 2010. Interestingly, this was not the first occasion a UN body had gone about this exercise, it was rather the 12th time. The Resolution on Defamation of Religions had been tabled every year since 1999 and was hence called an ‘annual exercise’: at the UN Commission on Human Rights seven times, by the UN General Assembly three times and a couple of times at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the recent induction to the UN human rights system that replaced the Commission on Human Rights in 2006.
In the midst of international concern and a massive debate around the concept of defamation of beliefs and ideas versus the rights of human beings, and whether religious discrimination could be linked to racial discrimination, the support for the Resolution on Defamation of Religions has been dwindling in the UN bodies. While it garnered 101 votes at the UN General Assembly in 2005, the resolution got 86 votes in favour in 2008 and just 80 votes in 2009.
The latest victory of the resolution was with a low margin in the UN Human Rights Council this March. In the house of 47, the resolution got the support of 24 countries in 2007 whereas in 2010 it had only 20 on its side. Minus the support of Russia, China and Cuba, who often want to champion the cause of the Third World, the next resolution might be hard to get through. The trend in the General Assembly showed diminishing support with more countries abstaining, while in the Human Rights Council countries like Brazil, South Korea and Japan seem to have exhausted whatever goodwill they attached to this resolution earlier and moved to vote against it in the past couple of years.
The situation merits comment and queries both on the content and intent of this move. If this resolution was so important and yet needed to be passed annually in the past 12 years, it is nevertheless a contradiction in terms. Why is the UN allowing a resolution to be passed over and again? Are the movers of this resolution and the UN bodies serious? Do they mean business? Is it some kind of manipulation of the human rights agenda at the UN? What would be required to stop such a manipulation? Should Pakistan as a member state support this resolution?
As far as the content is concerned, all these resolutions (or should it be called one resolution) had ‘defamation of religions’ in the title and looked inclusive. Secondly, although it presumably meant to stop any insult to all ‘religions’, yet Islam was the only religion expressly mentioned and it portrayed only Muslims as victims of xenophobia and discrimination on the basis of religion and belief. For example, point eight and nine of the resolution passed by the General Assembly in 2008 (A/62/439/Add2) has been a common feature of all resolutions, i.e. “(UN) Deplores the use of the print, audio-visual and electronic media, including the internet, and any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination against Islam or any other religion, as well as targeting of religious symbols; (UN) Stresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular.”
Thirdly, the Pakistan Mission at the UN has been the proponent all along on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Looking at the internal political situation might offer insight into the dynamics of the Pakistani Mission’s role concerning this move at the UN. The Resolution on Defamation of Religions was first tabled by the Pakistan Mission in April 1999 when Mr Nawaz Sharif was at the helm and the famous Shariat Bill meant to pontificate him as Ameerul Momineen had been moved in the National Assembly of Pakistan six months before the resolution was introduced in the UN body. The tabling and passage of the resolution gained momentum during the Musharraf era. This resolution was moved eight times on the world forum during his enlightened and moderate democracy that alone understood the fine difference between good and bad Taliban. Finally, it has been passed thrice during Mr Zardari’s fully restored democracy, admittedly in desperate need of looking for ‘Friends of Pakistan’.
People wondered what value was attached to bringing the Resolution on Defamation of Religion a number of times when a resolution was not a binding instrument and thus lacked any chance of implementation, especially at state level. First, countries like Pakistan and Sudan, where blasphemy is a criminal offence, could get away with criticism on the national laws if the defamation of religions was incorporated into the international human rights framework. This alibi would help ward off the kind of recommendation Mr Abdelfateh Amor made after his fact-finding visit to Pakistan in 1995 as UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance. He recommended amendments to the blasphemy laws with the following observations in UN document E/CN4/1996/95/Add1, Para 82: the punishments in blasphemy laws of Pakistan were proportionately higher than the offence, thus unacceptable. Moreover, the application of the blasphemy law on religious minorities was inappropriate and discriminatory.
Second, later events explained that repetitive motion of the resolution was a strategic choice of the movers, because they anticipated that the Western countries, which have their own reasons and a history in defending freedom of expression, might bring a parallel resolution defending and neutralising the effect of the Resolution on Defamation.
Third, the countries rallying behind the Defamation tried to use a back door entry, manipulating the procedure concerning the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). As a follow up of the Durban Conference held in 2001, an ad hoc committee was supposed to frame Elaborate Complementary Standards for the ICERD Treaty. The Pakistan Mission-headed lobby circle tried to incorporate Defamation of Religion (Islam) in racial discrimination, as a complementary standard or Optional Protocol that could be signed with the ICERD. Following a heated debate this March at the HRC, a decision is to be taken by the ad hoc committee in its meeting in December 2010.
The Resolution on Defamation of Religions is undoubtedly a prototype of the infamous blasphemy laws in Pakistan, protected by the pressure groups — aided by the bureaucracy — from any revision or change in their substance, albeit the blasphemy laws have claimed several dozens of innocent lives and hundreds of people suffered trials, jail sentences and displacement. Despite the fact that successive governments in Pakistan admitted that the blasphemy laws were frequently abused, they have hesitated so far from bringing forth the data on the issue. The data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace showed that among around 850 persons accused of blasphemy since 1987, half the victims were Muslims.
It is easy to infer that the resolution is a piece of bad statecraft relying on the abuse of religion for political purposes. It is not unimaginable that sympathisers of stringent laws and policies in the Pakistani establishment crafted and maintained the move for over a decade irrespective of the change of three governments, their specific policy emphasis and shifting geopolitical realities during this period.
The fact that the resolution began to be moved much before 9/11 explains that it was not meant to address the circumstances arising from this incident, despite that an alibi was sought in relating it to 9/11 and the aftermath. The resolution also came six years before the cartoon issue surfaced. Thus the cartoon issue was not in the backdrop of objectives of the resolution(s).
Through this resolution, the countries having a moderate or low performance on implementation of human right tried to kill time, intimidate, and block criticism, especially from independent experts and Special Rapporteurs of the UN, in the past few years.
Some mandate-holding experts have taken a clear position on the floor regarding this resolution. During the Durban Review Conference in April 2009 in Geneva, a joint statement was released by Githu Muigai, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Asma Jahangir, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. Together they asserted that “providing an objective definition of the term ‘defamation of religions’ at the international level makes the whole concept open to abuse” and that “while the exercise of freedom of expression could in some extreme cases affect the right to manifest the religion or belief of certain identified individuals, it is conceptually inaccurate to present ‘defamation of religion’ in abstracto as a conflict between the right to freedom of religion or belief and the right to freedom of opinion or expression.” They welcomed the fact that the debate seems to be shifting to the concept of “incitement to racial or religious hatred”, sometimes also referred to as ‘hate speech’, and urged that the debate on these issues be framed within the provisions of the ICCPR.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, presented his report to the 11th session of the Human Rights Council on June 2, 2009. La Rue came under attack for his conclusion that “the concept of ‘defamation of religion’ does not accord with international standards on freedom of expression,” as well as his reference to a joint declaration of the holders of similar mandates of other regional human rights bodies which expresses the same conclusion.”
Astonishingly, while the tabling and passage of the Defamation Resolution provoked a heated debate on supposed defamation versus freedom of expression, the resolution and its implications remained unknown in Pakistan. Quite strange, because Pakistan’s Mission at the UN had been spearheading the move all along during this period stretching over a decade.
Opening a discussion in Pakistan on the resolution(s) would have had serious repercussions if the zealots supporting blasphemy laws in Pakistan had blown it out of proportion and the issue would have gotten out of hand. The discussion might have exposed the contradictions within the blasphemy laws, especially attacks waged on religious minorities were another danger. The use and abuse of blasphemy laws ultimately did not protect the citizens of Pakistan, especially the religious minorities. They became vulnerable to being killed, their properties looted and torched on phoney charges. Entire settlements were set on fire (Shantinagar 1997, Sangla Hill 2005, Qasur, Gojra, Korian and Sialkot in 2009) after concocting charges of defamation or blasphemy.
By 2008, the international civil society organisations monitoring developments at the UN decided to be proactive and not to let state parties alone define and decide the human rights standards and the law. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The Becket Fund and many other organisations joined hands to make their voice heard on the issue. They approached several states to convince them to oppose this move meant to criminalise blasphemy in international humanitarian law.
Now the elected government is fully saddled in power in Pakistan, parliament is manifested to be sovereign and foreign policy oversight is possible. The government should review Pakistan’s participation at the UN and its position on the Resolution on Defamation of Religion(s). It is quite clear from the experience at home that the Resolution on Defamation will not resolve any issues, supposed or real. On the contrary, it will undermine the development so far in the conceptual framework and implementation of human rights. The international community has realised the dangers attached with the resolution and its fate is almost sealed. In December 2010, the ad hoc committee framing Complimentary Standards for Eliminating Racism cannot remain blind to the fact that racial discrimination cannot be equated with defamation of religion. This occasion perhaps will also bring our moment of truth to see that the blasphemy laws in Pakistan also need a serious and objective review and ultimate repeal. The international organisation has the capacity to reform and rectify its mistakes for a variety of reasons. The nations playing an important role internationally must also make their contribution in this regard.
The writer is a Lahore-based human rights activist working with National Commission for Justice and Peace
Source: Daily Times, Pakistan