Critics blast U.N. panel religious vote

WASHINGTON — The United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution March 26 condemning the defaming of religion despite foes' arguments it would actually violate religious freedom.

Voting at its meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the U.N. body passed the non-binding measure without even a majority of its 47 members in support. The vote was 23 countries in favor, 11 opposed and 13 abstentions. The United States is not a member of the council.

The resolution, which cites only Islam as a religion that has been defamed, calls for countries to protect "against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general." It also asks for a report on "all manifestations of defamation of religions."

Pakistan introduced the measure on behalf of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Belarus and Venezuela cosponsored the proposal.

Though the resolution requires no action by U.N. members, some critics believe the OIC may soon seek to gain approval of a binding measure. The General Assembly has approved similar non-binding resolutions in the past.

"While the resolution is not binding on U.N. member nations, it provides cover for groups who want to silence criticism of their religion," said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). "The language is so dangerous that even as a non-binding resolution, groups can claim that it legitimizes their efforts to prevent others from even advocating views that contradict their beliefs. It could even be used as cover to punish or silence someone who tells a Muslim, or someone of any other faith, that he will not go to heaven unless he accepts Jesus as his Savior."

Bennett Graham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty described the vote as "a disaster for people of all faiths."

"Human rights protect people, not ideas," Graham said in a written statement. "We already have the tools we need to address religious conflicts in international law, including existing provisions against incitement to hatred and violence. We need to use them better."

The resolution gained approval a day after more than 180 non-governmental organizations, led by the Becket Fund and including the ERLC, released a petition in opposition. The petition expressed alarm that the measure might be used to silence religious minorities and to legitimize blasphemy laws in Islamic countries. The idea of "defamation of religions" has no foundation in law and would change the understanding of human rights, according to the petition.

Rep. Trent Franks, R.-Ariz., made a plea, also on March 25, to several ambassadors, urging their countries to oppose the resolution.

"International human rights law protects individuals, not religions or belief systems, and the individual right to freedom of religion or belief does not include the right to have one's religion or belief be free from criticism," Franks said in a letter.

Pakistani Ambassador Zamir Akram said in support of the resolution, "Defamation of religions is the cause that leads to incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence toward their followers. It is important to deal with the cause, rather than with the effects alone."

The organizations that joined the Becket Fund and ERLC on the petition in opposition to the "defamation of religions" resolution were from diverse viewpoints. They included such religious organizations as Open Doors (which works on behalf of persecuted Christians), the American Jewish Congress, B'nai B'rith International and the Muslim Council of Canada, as well as human rights, atheist and humanist groups.