World News

Activists say U.N. rights body undermines free speech

GENEVA (Reuters) - International activist groups accused the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday of acting as a cover for Islamic and other countries aiming to restrict free speech.

The 47-nation Council passed resolutions on Friday imposing new instructions for its investigator on freedom of expression which non-governmental organisations (NGOs) said bowed too far to concerns about defamation of Islam, which have flared again with a Dutch lawmaker’s film on the Islamic holy book the Koran.

Instead of defending human rights around the world, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said, the U.N. body was focusing on limiting criticism of state and religious interests.

“All of the Council’s decisions are nowadays determined by the interests of Muslim countries or powerful states such as China or Russia that know how to surround themselves with allies,” the group said.

And the India and Britain-based International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) said the Council “stands exposed as no longer capable of fulfilling its central role: the promotion and protection of human rights.”

The Council kept firmly away from taking any action over China’s handling of recent protests in Tibet, although there was some muted criticism from Western countries. It had earlier dropped special investigations into Cuba’s rights record.

Some Western and Latin American Council members who first helped draft the freedom of expression resolution, including main sponsor Canada, withdrew support when it came to a vote, saying it had been radically changed by amendments.

One of these, from Pakistan for the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), decreed the investigator must “report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.”


The amendment -- backed by Russia, Cuba, China and a range of African states on the Council -- clearly targetted media cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad and the Dutch film, released on the Internet at the weekend, that linked Islam with terrorism.

A broad coalition of NGOs -- including more than 20 from Muslim countries such as Egypt, Bahrain, Sudan and Syria -- said on Friday the amendment would undermine free expression “when it most needs protection and strengthening.”

The U.N. investigator’s role was not to look at the abuse of free expression but to monitor abuses of human rights which were used to limit freedom of expression, those NGOs declared.

Amnesty International said the resolution, which passed by a majority vote, showed “troubling signs that the Council is moving away from its mandate to promote human rights in the direction of policing the exercise of human rights.”

Canada voiced a similar view in the Council on Friday, and Slovenia, speaking for the 27-nation European Union, said the amendment shifted the investigator’s mandate “from promoting freedom of expression towards restricting it.”

Critics of the nearly two-year-old Council say it has failed to overcome Cold War alliances that plagued its discredited predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. Before 1991, the Soviet bloc could count on near-automatic support of developing nations on the Commission.

The current chairman of the Council, Doru Costea of Romania, hinted at a similar view on Friday, telling a news conference that there appeared to be “a slipback to a language and attitudes which we were used to some 20 years ago.”