|No to an international blasphemy law|
|Written by L Bennett Graham|
|Friday, 26 March 2010 16:04|
In Geneva, the UN's ad hoc committee is reviewing a proposal to criminalise 'insults to religion'. It must be stopped. In the 17th century, Galileo was imprisoned for asserting views on scientific and religious matters which were deemed heretical and offensive to the Roman Catholic church.
Four hundred years later, a rogue UN committee is working to resurrect the same ideology that landed Galileo in jail: the notion that the law is intended to protect ideas, instead of human beings.
That committee goes by the label of the "ad hoc committee on the elaboration of complementary standards" a lengthy and vague name, even by UN standards. Known to insiders simply as the "ad hoc committee", its mandate is as ambiguous as its name.
Established in the wake of a controversial 2001 UN conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa, the ad hoc committee was given the mandate to write a new treaty on racism – despite the fact that no legal experts have identified any substantive gaps in international law on racism.
Currently, the ad hoc committee has turned its obfuscated eye to free expression issues, specifically "defamation of religion".
Since 1999, the UN, at the prompting of the 47- member Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), has passed a non-binding resolution asserting that speech deemed offensive to another faith is a violation of international law. While the resolution is relatively toothless, it provides cover for domestic blasphemy laws used to restrict proselytism and religious speech around the world.
But certain members of the ad hoc committee have determined that non-binding is not enough. Urged on by a number of African nations and the OIC, they want to up the ante and bind this concept into international law. More specifically, they want to enshrine the concept as an "optional" amendment to an existing international treaty – one which most courts in the world look to for direction on racism. The committee is currently reviewing a proposed amendment by Pakistan to the international convention for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination (ICERD) that would criminalise "insults to religion".
This would be a very bad solution to a very real problem.
Religious tension is a natural byproduct of an increasingly globalised society in which we are constantly surrounded by speech and ideas that offend us. Andres Serrano's picture of a crucifix in a jar of urine, Sarah Silverman's film "Jesus is Magic", and most egregiously, the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, have all set off cultural debates about when speech should be restricted, especially when dealing with sensitive topics like religion.
Furthermore, discrimination based on religion is on the rise around the world. A recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that 32% of countries in the world have high restrictions on religion, while 70% of the world's population lives in a country with similarly high restrictions.
Recent events – including the referendum on a minaret ban in Switzerland, re-publication of the Danish cartoons, and the French government's efforts to ban the burqa – continue to provoke the ire of the Muslim world. And the aggressive efforts by some to purge any semblance of religion from the public square have provoked other faithful practioners: Alevi mosques are illegal in Turkey, yarmulkes are forbidden in public schools in France, and home Bible studies are harassed in San Diego. The grievances manifested in these UN resolutions are sincere.
However, an international blasphemy treaty with binding effects on domestic laws is not going to assuage secularists or people of faith. Rather it will only create new tensions and further entrench the "religious freedom for me but not for thee" attitude that has increasingly dominated the diplomatic discourse for the past decade.
Additionally, this treaty would empower governments to decide theological questions for believers and would only strengthen the legitimacy of domestic blasphemy laws found in countries like Pakistan and Sudan, where the definition of blasphemy is so broad that the laws are used to settle business disputes.
This week in Geneva, the UN human rights council will determine the future of the ad hoc committee. It will decide whether to move forward with the drafting of this binding treaty or to focus on practical and realistic steps to address the growing discrimination and violence victims around the world experience everyday.
The ad hoc committee cannot be permitted to upend human rights in further entrenching the "defamation of religions" concept, lest the United Nations wants the blood of countless more Galileos on its hands. (L Bennett Graham)Source : The Guardian Daily UK http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/mar/25/blasphemy-law-ad-hoc-committee
|Last Updated on Friday, 26 March 2010 16:17|