UN: two steps forward...
The United Nations General Assembly on December 19 adopted a new resolution condemning religious intolerance that could still lead to an increase in the persecution of Christians.
The resolution — following on from a similar one at the UN’s Human Rights Council in March 2011 — marks a shift from those passed annually by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) which urged all members of the UN to outlaw ‘defamation of religions’.
Welcome and concern
Barnabas Fund and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) both welcomed the resolution as an improvement on previous agreements. Nevertheless, human rights experts at both charities are concerned that the resolution will continue to be used to give credence and legitimacy to the criminalisation of any criticism of Islam and could bolster blasphemy laws such as those already in place in Pakistan. As it stands, in countries where one religion is dominant, the new resolution can still be twisted to keep religious minorities under tight control or even leave them open to forced conversion or oppression.
The non-binding UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, ‘Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion and belief’, was sponsored by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. Since 1998, the OIC has called on countries to prohibit ‘defamation of religions’. It has been passed every year as it is supported by all 57 nations in the OIC, although in 2010 it barely received a majority of yes votes as Western and Latin American countries opposed the idea of supporting the unacceptability of defaming another religion.
Clinton and tolerance
The significant improvement to the wording passed in December is a direct result of engagement by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. She negotiated with members of the OIC a shift away from defamation towards promoting tolerance. The resolution now declares that ‘discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes a violation of human rights’. It also expresses concern about the incitement to religious hatred and the failure of some states ‘to combat this burgeoning trend’.
International Human Rights Advisor at Barnabas Fund, Emma Brown, said: ‘Although the wording is a significant improvement on the previous annual resolutions, international human rights law is viewed as a threat by conservative Islam. Members within the OIC seek to protect “their version” of Islam by influencing international human rights law in a certain way. An end goal could be the criminalisation or prohibition of the criticism of debate and critical analysis of religions generally and certain practices within those religions, which contradict the minimum standards of human rights’.
She added: ‘What is rubber stamped at the UN will have a local impact for Christians around the world. 2011 sadly bore witness to the violent consequences of religious intolerance and discrimination: from the bomb attacks against churches in Egypt at the start of the year, to the assassinations in Pakistan of two prominent politicians who challenged the blasphemy laws, to the wave of bomb and gun attacks against Christian targets in Nigeria over Christmas. While the resolution is a good start, it needs to be implemented on the ground and translated into state policies that reflect equality and justice for all, especially for those who are mistreated at present’.
Matthew Jones, Senior Public Affairs Officer at CSW, said they had been campaigning for a change in the wording for many years: ‘In 2009, CSW had joined over 180 other NGOs in condemning the former resolutions, arguing that they were unworkable, inconsistent with individual freedoms and effectively justified domestic blasphemy laws such as those in Pakistan, which are routinely misused’. He added: ‘The shift in debate at the UN in early 2011 came in the wake of the assassinations of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, two high-profile political leaders in Pakistan who had directly opposed Pakistan’s domestic blasphemy laws’.
Looking to the future, there are still major concerns. Without political pressure and continued dialogue, in 2012 the resolution could revert back to include the words ‘religious defamation’.
It will be up to all members of the UN, especially those not in the IOC, to have the will and capacity to ensure that a non-binding resolution translates into concrete policies which actually promote religious tolerance and prosecute all acts of religiously motivated violence.