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U.N. religious hate vote alarms liberty groups

By MARTIN SIEFF   |   Dec. 19, 2008 at 1:38 PM
WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 (UPI) -- The U.N. General Assembly Thursday approved a "Defamation of Religion" resolution, largely supported by Islamic countries, condemning critical or offensive expressions directed at any religious faith. What's not to like?

According to critics of the resolution, quite a lot.

The resolution has been pushed at the United Nations by major Islamic nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan over the past nine years. It was approved by a vote of 86 in favor, 53 against and 42 abstentions.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." Article 19 expands on this freedom by guaranteeing "the right to freedom of opinion and expression."

"The 'defamation of religions' resolution is a direct violation of the United Nations' mandate to protect religious freedom, as peaceful religious speech -- a manifestation of belief -- will be silenced as a result of it," Angela C. Wu, international law director of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement.

The resolution therefore raises the issue: Should respect for what is considered sacred by others limit freedom of expression? It is also a prime example of the way different cultures around the world interpret great principles that they theoretically agree upon in very different ways.

This gives the fierce debate over the resolution a place in the whole Clash of Civilizations narrative, to use the concept presented by Samuel P. Huntington in his book of the same name. It highlights profound differences in approaches to religious belief and religious freedom between democracies, largely built on separation of church and state, and Islamic states.

Support for the resolution in the United Nations was actually down compared with last year, when it won an overwhelming 108 votes in favor, 51 against and only 25 nations abstaining. This year, Noes and Abstentions outweighed the Yeses. However, the Organization of the Islamic Conference is pushing hard to implement the resolution into formal international law and would like to see it institutionalized in formal international agreements.

This could lead to major international diplomatic conflicts. The United States has consistently opposed the resolution as actually having a negative effect on religious liberty, a position supported by most U.S. groups concerned with religious liberty.

Elements of the resolution seem to conflict with the United Nations' own Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They certainly contradict the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

International religious liberty activists are particularly concerned that Islam is the only religion specifically named in the resolution. Even if the measure is admirable and necessary, the other great world religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, deserve equal protection under it, they maintain.

Critics also charge that, far from protecting religious liberty, the resolution will endanger it by smothering protests and reporting about religious persecution around the world on the grounds that any dominant religion doing the persecuting is allegedly being unfairly criticized.

"We are deeply disturbed that (the) resolution has given cover to oppressive governments to persecute dissenters," the Becket Fund's Wu said. "Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Christians in Orissa, India, and Baha'is in Iran have one more reason to fear for their lives as the U.N. lends legitimacy to the criminalization of their peaceful speech."

"States have no place determining what is and is not blasphemy," she said.

According to this argument, the resolution, however well intentioned, is another example of bad law being enacted for good reasons and producing the opposite results to the ones that were intended. If that proves to be the case, it would be another example of British conservative philosopher Sir Karl Popper's famous Law of Unintended Consequences, which can loosely be paraphrased, "Be careful what you wish for; it will turn out to be the opposite of what you intended."

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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