It does not happen often: Christian lobbyists, the sort who favour prayer in American classrooms and crucifixes in Italian ones, lining up on the same side as secularists who battle to curb religion’s role in the public square. But in both those camps there has been some quiet satisfaction after a recent vote at the United Nations. Not over the outcome, but over the slim margin of defeat.
On March 25th the Human Rights Council (HRC), a Geneva-based UN agency which often exasperates its Western members, voted by 20 votes to 17, with eight abstentions, for a text that lists the “defamation of religion” as an infringement of liberty. Nothing amazing there: the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which groups 56 mainly Muslim states (plus Palestine), has been working to push resolutions of that kind through the General Assembly and other UN bodies since 2005. But the margin was the smallest ever, and opponents think there could be a good chance of defeating a “defamation” motion next time one comes around.
The OIC’s idea is to establish the principle that faiths need protection, just as individuals do. It denies any sinister intention (see article). And to some ears, the OIC’s effort sounds like harmless UN-speak, but nothing more. (The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressionally mandated body, has noted a logical flaw: defamation means harming the reputation of a living person or entity: that implies that one can’t defame an idea or a religious founder who is no longer, at least physically, alive on earth.)
But critics of the OIC campaign, who include atheists, Christians and indeed some Muslims, say the “defamation” idea is worse than hot air: far from protecting human rights, it emboldens countries that use blasphemy laws to criminalise dissent. What encourages these critics is that more countries seem to be coming around to their view. Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Zambia and South Korea voted against the latest resolution. Brazil criticised the text but abstained.
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