GENEVA (Reuters) - A United Nations forum on Thursday passed a resolution condemning “defamation of religion” as a human rights violation, despite wide concerns that it could be used to justify curbs on free speech in Muslim countries.
The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted the non-binding text, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of Islamic states, with a vote of 23 states in favor and 11 against, with 13 abstentions.
Western governments and a broad alliance of activist groups have voiced dismay about the religious defamation text, which adds to recent efforts to broaden the concept of human rights to protect communities of believers rather than individuals.
Pakistan, speaking for the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), said a “delicate balance” had to be struck between freedom of expression and respect for religions.
The resolution said Muslim minorities had faced intolerance, discrimination and acts of violence since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, including laws and administrative procedures that stigmatize religious followers.
“Defamation of religious is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of their adherents and incitement to religious violence,” the adopted text read, adding that “Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.”
It called on states to ensure that religious places, sites, shrines and symbols are protected, to reinforce laws “to deny impunity” for those exhibiting intolerance of ethnic and religious minorities, and “to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs.”
The 47-member Human Rights Council has drawn criticism for reflecting mainly the interests of Islamic and African countries, which when voting together can control its agenda.
Addressing the body, Germany said on behalf of the European Union that while instances of Islamophobia, Christianophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of religious discrimination should be taken seriously, it was “problematic to reconcile the notion of defamation (of religion) with the concept of discrimination.”
“The European Union does not see the concept of defamation of religion as a valid one in a human rights discourse,” it said. “The European Union believes that a broader, more balanced and thoroughly rights-based text would be best suited to address the issues underlying this draft resolution.”
India and Canada also took to the floor of the Geneva-based Council to raise objections to the OIC text. Both said the text looked too narrowly at the discrimination issue.
“It is individuals who have rights, not religions,” Ottawa’s representative told the body. “Canada believes that to extend (the notion of) defamation beyond its proper scope would jeopardize the fundamental right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of expression on religious subjects.”
A separate, EU-sponsored resolution about religious discrimination is due to be discussed by the Council on Friday.
Earlier this week, 180 secular, religious and media groups from around the world urged diplomats to reject the resolution which they said “may be used in certain countries to silence and intimidate human rights activists, religious dissenters and other independent voices” and ultimately restrict freedoms.
Condemnation of defamation of religion had been included in a draft declaration being prepared for an April U.N. conference on racism, known as “Durban II,” but was removed earlier this month after Western countries said it was unacceptable.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Roche