On 30 March 2007, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on "Combating Defamation of Religions." Under the guise of protecting religious sensibilities, the World Association of Newspapers has denounced this resolution as a justification of the suppression of unpopular or dissenting speech and a facilitator to the attack on freedom of expression.
While the resolution sponsored by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) condemns defamation of religions in general, it only mentions Islam in particular, focusing efforts on protecting religion itself, neglecting the believers and freedom of expression.
WAN is seriously concerned that this resolution will be relied on by authoritarian governments to suppress freedom of expression on the grounds of religious defamation, and believes that it is badly chosen for the Human Rights Council to justify censorship and the stifling of dissenting voices.
Following the vote, Birgitta Maria Siefker-Eberle from Germany spoke on behalf of the European Union, stating that the main focus should remain the rights and freedoms of individuals.
The representative of Switzerland stated that "its unclear wording could lead to restrictions on the freedom of expression."
Canada, a strong promoter of the freedom of expression, regretted that the protection of the religions themselves, rather than the protection of the adherents to the religion, was the focus.
What has caused further alarm is the number of states, including democratic ones, that voted in favour or abstained. Among those voting in favour were Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
Below is the protest letter WAN issued following the adoption of this resolution. The letter was sent on behalf of WAN to Mr Luis Alfonso de Alba UN Secretary General as well as the heads of state of all countries voting in favour of the resolution or that abstained.
Mr Luis Alfonso de Alba
UN Human Rights Council Secretary General
13 April 2007
Dear Secretary General,
We are writing on behalf of the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum, which represent 18,000 publications in 102 countries, to express our serious concern at the approval of a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council that attempts to justify censorship of free speech under the guise of protecting religious sensibilities.
According to reports, on 30 March a resolution discouraging "defamation of religion" was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. The resolution, sponsored by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, condemns defamation of religions in general, although it mentions only Islam specifically. Presented as a measure to protect the religious sensibilities of Muslims, the resolution asserts that freedom of expression "should be exercised with responsibility and may therefore be subject to limitations as provided by law". The resolution passed the council 24 to 14, with nine abstentions.
We are seriously concerned that this resolution will be relied on by authoritarian governments to suppress freedom of expression on the grounds of religious defamation. We believe that it is wholly inappropriate for the Human Rights Council to justify censorship and the stifling of dissenting voices.
Those voting in favour were: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Gabon, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Philippines, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Tunisia.
Those voting against were: Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Switzerland, Ukraine and United Kingdom.
Those abstaining were: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Peru, Uruguay and Zambia.
We respectfully call on you to take all steps necessary to ensure that international standards of freedom of expression are fully supported by the UN Human Rights Council and not undermined by resolutions such as this.
We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
World Association of Newspapers
World Editors Forum
WAN is the global organization for the newspaper industry, with formal representative status at the United Nations, UNESCO and the Council of Europe. The organization groups 18,000 newspapers in 102 countries, 11 news agencies and nine regional and world-wide press groups. WAN is non-governmental and non-profit.