Proponents of free speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) have accused Islamic countries of "hijacking" a resolution intended to renew the mandate of the special rapporteur on freedom of expression and turning it into an order to report on defamation of religion. In the words of the Canadian delegation: "instead of promoting freedom of expression the Special Rapporteur would be policing its exercise". The amended resolution was adopted on Friday in Geneva by 32 votes in favour (mainly Islamic states with support from China, Cuba and Russia). There were no votes against, but 15 abstentions.

Roy Brown, spokesman at the UNCHR in Geneva for the International Humanist and Ethical Union, commented: "Canada's position was echoed by several delegations, who objected to the change of focus from protecting to limiting freedom of expression. More than 20 of the original 53 co-sponsors of the resolution withdrew their sponsorship. These included the European Union and the United Kingdom (speaking for Australia and the United States), India, Switzerland, Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala.”

"Freedom of expression is most important for those who live under the tyranny of Islamic law. This was highlighted by a courageous group of 21 NGOs from the Islamic States who issued a statement appealing to delegations not to support the amendment.” (See http://www.article19.org/pdfs/press/petition-hrc.pdf )

Death of Human Rights
Roy Brown added: "We have just witnessed the death of the Human Rights Council, and with it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saw the writing on the wall three years ago when he spoke of the old Commission on Human Rights having "become too selective and too political in its work". The old system needed to be swept away and replaced. The Human Rights Council was supposed to be that new start, a Council whose members genuinely supported, and were prepared to defend, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Three years later Annan's dream lies shattered, and the Human Rights Council stands exposed as no longer capable of fulfilling its central role: the promotion and protection of human rights." “NGOs and those States that are genuinely concerned with human rights should now seriously consider withdrawing from the Council until such time as it puts its house in order. Or failing that, set up their own organisation actually committed to the promotion and protection of human rights.”

A full report on the resolution and debate can be found at: www.iheu.org

Roy Brown, IHEU main representative at the UN, Geneva

IHEU, Geneva, 31 March 2008