Adios freedom of speech

Well at least someone is paying attention.

Pakistan and the other nations that have banded together in the Organization of the Islamic Conference have been leading a remarkably successful campaign through the United Nations to enshrine in international law prohibitions against “defamation of religions,” particularly Islam. Their aim is to empower governments around the world to punish anyone who commits the “heinous act” of defaming Islam. Critics say it is an attempt to globalize laws against blasphemy that exist in some Muslim countries — and that the movement has already succeeded in suppressing open discussion in international forums of issues such as female genital mutilation, honour killings and gay rights.

Quite. David Littman is one of those critics. He tells me that no one is talking about this, because it’s taboo. I knew hardly anyone was talking about it, from trying to find people talking about it. People should be talking about this, if they want to go on talking about other things without having to ask the OIC for permission. People should be talking about this and shouting their heads off about it so that nothing will come of it.

The trend has rights advocates worried for numerous reasons, beginning with the language used. If the notion of “defaming” a religion sounds a little unfamiliar, that’s because it is a major departure from the traditional understanding of what defamation means. Defamation laws traditionally protect individual people from being materially harmed by the dissemination of falsehoods. But “defamation of religions” is not about protecting individual believers from damage to their reputations caused by false statements — but rather about protecting a religion, or some interpretation of it, or the feelings of the followers. While a traditional defence in a defamation lawsuit is that the accused was merely telling the truth, religions by definition present competing claims on the truth, and one person’s religious truth is easily another’s apostasy. “Truth” is no defence in such cases. The subjective perception of insult is what matters, and what puts the whole approach on a collision course with the human rights regime — especially in countries with an official state religion.

If the right to free speech can be trumped by a subjective perception of insult, then there is no right to free speech. That’s it. All over. (Just ask Taslima Nasreen, to name only one.)

Susan Bunn Livingstone, a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in human rights issues and also spoke to the July 18 congressional gathering, said the developments at the UN are worrisome. “They are trying to internationalize the concept of blasphemy,” said Livingstone at the panel. She contrasted “the concept of injuring feelings versus what is actually happening on the ground — torture, imprisonment, abuse.” And, she added, “They are using this discourse of ‘defamation’ to carve out any attention we would bring to a country. Abstractions like states and ideologies and religions are seen as more important than individuals. This is a moral failure.”

A moral failure and also a gutting of the whole concept of human rights. Rights are for individuals, who can experience and suffer and feel and think; they’re not for states and ideologies and religions, which cannot suffer or feel anything at all. The whole idea is an absolute nightmare.

The fact that the resolutions keep passing, and that UN officials now monitor countries’ compliance, could help the concept of “defamation of religions” become an international legal norm, said Livingstone, noting that when the International Court of Justice at The Hague decides what rises to the level of an “international customary law,” it looks not to unanimity among countries but to “general adherence.” “That’s why these UN resolutions are so troubling,” she said. “They’ve been passed for 10 years.”

Well – that scares the hell out of me.

In March, the [OIC] held a summit in Dakar, Senegal. Their final communiqué ran 52 pages and included a comprehensive strategy on human rights that featured a plan to shield Islamic states from being pressured to change their more contentious practices through international human rights laws and organizations. The conference expressed “deep concern over attempts to exploit the issue of human rights to discredit the principles and provisions of Islamic sharia and to interfere in the affairs of Muslim states.” It also called for “abstaining from using the universality of human rights as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of states and undermining their national sovereignty.” The states also resolved to coordinate and co-operate “in the field of human rights particularly in the relevant international fora to face any attempt to use human rights as a means of political pressure on any member state.”

Oh did it. How impressive.

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