GENEVA Some 200 secular, religious and media groups from around the world on Wednesday urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to reject a call from Islamic countries for a global fight against "defamation of religion."
The groups, including some Muslim bodies, issued their appeal in a statement on the eve of a vote in the Council in Geneva on a resolution proposed by the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Such a resolution, the statement said, "may be used in certain countries to silence and intimidate human rights activists, religious dissenters and other independent voices," and to restrict freedom of religion and of speech.
The resolution, its critics say, would also restrict free speech and even academic study in open societies in the West and elsewhere.
Islamic countries argue that criticizing or lampooning religions is a violation of the rights of believers and leads to discrimination and violence against them. Cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, first published in a Danish newspaper, sparked riots in the Muslim world in 2006.
The OIC resolution says "Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism" and calls on U.N. member states "to combat defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general .... "
Similar unbinding resolutions have been passed since 1999 in the U.N. General Assembly and by the 47-nation Human Rights Council, where Islamic countries and others who support them on the issue have a built-in majority.
But activist groups say the latest one -- tabled by Pakistan on behalf of the OIC -- is part of a growing offensive by the Islamic countries to impose their concepts of rights and religion on the rest of the world.
They argue that the concept of "defamation of religions" is so vague that it can be used against any challenge to a religious tenet and bolster laws against blasphemy in authoritarian regimes where one religion holds sway.
Condemnation of "defamation" was originally included in a draft of a declaration to be issued by a U.N. anti-racism conference, dubbed Durban II, in Geneva next month, but was withdrawn after Western countries said it was unacceptable.
However, critics say they fear OIC states and their allies are working to insert it in an existing U.N. convention against racial discrimination. They say "defamation of religion" has no validity in international law because only individuals, and not concepts or beliefs, can be defamed.
Among the groups signing Wednesday's statement were the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, the Muslim Council of Canada, the American Islamic Congress, the World Jewish Congress, the U.S. Freedom House, and the Paris-based International Press Institute. It was also backed by organizations representing believers, agnostics and atheists in India, Australia, Europe, Africa and Latin America.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)