In important but underreported news, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has abandoned its push for a global ban on blasphemy at the United Nations, according to the news outlet Reuters.
The 57-nation body wanted the General Assembly, which is currently in session, to take up a binding measure criminalizing speech critical of religion. But Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the OIC, claims his outfit was unable to convince the United States or European countries to support such a proposal.
“We could not convince them,” Ihsanoglu said. “The European countries don’t vote with us, the United States doesn’t vote with us.”
If this sticks, it marks another in a string of recent victories for secularists at the UN. As you probably recall, the 193-member General Assembly had passed every year between 1999 and 2010 an OIC-backed “defamation of religion” resolution that urged member states to combat criticism of religion at home (for example, see A/HRC/RES/10/22; also see CFI’s statement in opposition). While non-binding, the resolution provided cover for blasphemy and other laws that restricted the rights of religious dissidents, minorities, and nonbelievers.
However, in 2011 both the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly dropped the defamation resolution and instead passed an action-oriented resolution that sought to protect people rather than beliefs. Also in 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee — a panel of 18 independent experts who interpret and track application of the International Covenent on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a central treaty approved by the UN in 1966 — issued a commentary that strongly condemned blasphemy laws and other restrictions on the rights to freedoms of belief and expression as inconsistent with international law.
The recent turmoil in majority-Muslim countries, resulting from release of the Internet video Innocence of Muslims, had prompted leaders in several countries to call upon the General Assembly to once again take up a defamation resolution, but now it appears their efforts have failed.
That said, concerned secularists should not sit back and relax. As evidenced in the Center for Inquiry’s new report “Dissent Denied,” many countries around the world simply international agreements and have in place blasphemy laws that punish innocent people for victimless crimes.
But also, the OIC has signaled that, instead of pushing for a blasphemy ban, it will appeal to member states to apply hate speech laws to criticism of religion. Unfortunately, support for laws that link criticism of religious ideas to hate speech can be found in Article 20 of the ICCPR, which states, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” One prominent example of a country that uses laws based on this language to restrict dissent from religion is Indonesia, which is currently imprisoning Alexander Aan merely for stating on Facebook that he is an atheist. It is important that secularists actively oppose both blasphemy and incitement laws as unfair restrictions on the rights to freedoms of belief and expression.
The General Assembly meets through December, and CFI will continue to track the issue and update you if anything happens. In the meantime, you can read my previous postings on this issue here, or about all of CFI’s work at the United Nations here.