Religion and human rights

Diplomacy, faith and freedom
America rejoins the argument over which human rights are sacred
BACK in February there were groans of dismay among civil-liberties activists when Hillary Clinton, in one of her early pronouncements as secretary of state, suggested that America had more important things to discuss with China than human rights. “Our pressing on those [human-rights] issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis and the security crisis,” she said.

But on March 31st the Obama administration did something very concrete to correct any impression that diplomatic lobbying for liberty was too big a luxury in a world with other woes on its mind. In a bid to redeem a body which sceptics had called irredeemable, it announced its intention to seek one of the 47 seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The council was established in 2006 in the hope that a new structure would avoid the worst flaws of its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, where notorious dictatorships seemed to do most of the talking. Hawks in the Bush administration were unconvinced that the council would be much of an improvement, and the council has already done much to vindicate them; it has focused far more on Israel than on any other country, and it has devoted quite a lot of energy to a campaign for laws against the “defamation of religion” whose main supporters are Muslim governments with distinctly illiberal ideas about free speech.

Still, there were sighs of relief from many other Western countries when Mrs Clinton announced that her country had decided to try joining the council and making it better. New Zealand graciously withdrew its own candidacy to make room for an American bid, in a General Assembly vote that will take place in May.


A blasphemy trial in Pakistan: just whose rights are at stake?

John Bolton, who served as ambassador to the UN during the Bush administration, dismissed the American change of line as giving credibility to an agency that deserved none—or as he put it, “getting on board the Titanic after it’s hit the iceberg.”

Altering the council from within will be a formidable task—especially after a vote on “defamation” on March 26th which enhanced the body’s reputation as an obstacle to free expression as most Westerners would understand the concept. The resolution was passed in defiance of an appeal from a remarkably broad range of secular, Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups; in a joint statement, they had argued that by denouncing the “defamation” of faith the Council would give heart to regimes that set out to “silence and intimidate human-rights activists, religious dissenters and other independent voices.”

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a lobby group which co-ordinated the appeal, says the resolution is part of an effort by Islamic governments to establish a new definition of human rights which stresses the immunity of faiths from criticism, not the protection of individuals from persecution. Roy Brown, who represents the IHEU in Geneva, believes the latest resolution reflects a campaign by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to supplant the Universal Declaration on Human Rights with the “Cairo declaration” adopted by the OIC in 1990, which lays out an alternative view of liberty.

Supporters of the Cairo statement say it complements the universal one—but as human-rights wonks have noted, the Cairo document carries the huge rider that the application of all human rights should be subordinated to sharia law. It also affirms the illegitimacy of “exercising any form of pressure” on Muslims to quit their faith “for another religion or for atheism”—in terms that seem to deny the individual’s freedom to change religion, and to justify the penalties for “apostasy” and blasphemy that many Muslim states impose.

An unenviable task, then, for the American diplomats who face the task of arguing back in defence of old-fashioned libertarianism. But re-engaging with the council will boost America’s image in many quarters—regardless of what it decides to do about a related human-rights forum: the so-called Durban II conference on racism, due to take place in Geneva in late April.

The United States said on February 27th that it was pulling out of preparations for that event: the draft final statement was too biased against Israel to be worth discussing. The text has since been shortened and made less controversial, leaving a chance that America might rejoin. But whatever America decides about that, expect some hard arguments in Geneva and elsewhere about the nature of religious freedom


2014 united copts .org
Copyright © 2023 United Copts. All Rights Reserved.
Website Maintenance by: