The U.N. and the War on Freedom of Expression – by DMB

The UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After World War I, “the war to end all wars”, the League of Nations was established in a bid to find a more peaceful way of dealing with international disputes. Ultimately, the League failed in its primary objective when World War II broke out.

As World War II drew to its close, the nations who had suffered from the two world wars were determined to try to avoid a third. They set in motion the creation of an international body that they hoped would be more effective than the League and profit from an understanding of the League’s shortcomings. And so the United Nations was born, and it took over a number of agencies that had been created as part of the League.

World War II had been notable for the hideous crimes against humanity that had come to light, and so the founders of the UN wanted to do everything possible to protect human rights.

A key figure in the fight for human rights was the First Lady of the USA, Eleanor Rooseveldt, who worked hard to set up the UN. She chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and had big influence on its style and contents. The UDHR was adopted by the UN in 1948, and we are thus celebrating the 60th birthday of this ground-breaking document this year. I urge anyone who is interested in human rights to read the UDHR. It isn’t long. We may perhaps see in it as a descendant of the US Bill of Rights and as a fruit of the Enlightenment. It is worth mentioning that Saudi Arabia and the Soviet bloc abstained in the vote that adopted the UDHR.

What is remarkable about the UDHR is that it recognises that rights belong to individual human beings, not groupings of human beings, and that they apply to all human beings: it is indeed universal. Quite obviously, it is intended to give individuals protection against abuses of their rights by powerful governments.

The UDHR carries no legal weight, but its daughters, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) do.

UN structure for human rights

The UN Charter created a UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). One of its responsibilities was to promote human rights, so ECOSOC set up a Commission for Human Rights in 1946. This was intended to help member states implement human rights within their territories, but it adhered strictly to the idea of the sovereignty of nation states and did not intervene to prevent human rights abuses.

There was in fact a great deal of disagreement among states as to how interventionist the UN could be in questions of human rights, and that argument has continued until now. The Commission did eventually come to investigate human rights abuses by member states, but it was always hampered by its composition of elected member states, which always seemed to include a sprinkling of the worst abusers of human rights. By the middle of this decade it had become clear that the abusers on the Commission supported one another in an unholy alliance and that any effective defence of human rights was not to be expected from the Commission.

The UN therefore tried a fresh start in 2006, setting up the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). It soon became evident, however, that the Council suffered from many of the same problems as the Commission. In my opinion it is unlikely that we shall ever see a UN body that seriously addresses human rights issues across the globe. The states that are members of the Council always vote mainly in accordance with calculations of national interest. For example, while Saudi Arabia remains the major supplier of oil, it is highly improbable that any abuse of human rights in that country would ever be dealt with by the Council. Three current members of the Council, China, Cuba and Pakistan, have signed but not yet ratified the key human rights treaty, the ICCPR, which came into force in 1976. Pakistan did not even sign it until this year. Two other Council members, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, have not even signed it.

Two things do work reasonably well at the UNHRC: special rapporteurs and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Special rapporteurs are experts given a brief to investigate certain general areas of concern within the field of human rights and to report their findings and recommendations back to the Council. And the Council does provide a platform for NGOs. They do not have the same rights as member states, but they can try to raise issues that member states are failing to discuss.

For a discussion of the performance of the UNHRC during its first year, see this report by UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO. Note that UN Watch has an American Jewish background and might be supposed to be Zionist in its sympathies, but I have found its reports to be accurate.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is a grouping of 57 states with Muslim populations. In not all cases do Muslims constitute a majority of the population. For more about the OIC, see this Wikipedia article.

The OIC normally operate as a bloc within the UN. At present 17 member countries of the OIC are represented on the UNHRC. Another significant bloc is the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). There is considerable overlap between the membership of the OIC and that of the NAM. In addition to the I7 members of the OIC, a further 11 members of the NAM are on the UNHRC. There are 12 members who belong to neither group. Very frequently, members of the NAM vote with the OIC within the UNHRC, giving them an easy majority on most votes. China, also, can normally be relied upon to vote with the OIC and Russia does from time to time.

Islam and human rights

Now you may be wondering why I am devoting so much attention to the OIC. It is because there seems to be a significant mismatch between the human rights outlined in the UDHR and the ideas of Islamic Shari’a law. In particular, Islamic law has problems with the following articles of the UDHR

  • Articles 1 and 2: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights… Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Disagreement over equal rights for men and women and for Muslims and non-Muslims.
  • Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Possible problem over stoning to death and amputations.
  • Article 13: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State… Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. Not all Islamic laws accord these rights to women.
  • Article 16: Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. It is arguable that this is not the case where child marriage is permitted. However, a number of Islamic countries are trying to discourage child marriage.
  • Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. The idea that any Muslim should be free to change his or her religion is unacceptable. Apostasy is punishable under Islamic law and in some countries can incur the death penalty. Saudi Arabia does not allow the free practice of any religion other than Islam.
  • Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This is another particularly problematical idea. Islamic law punishes blasphemy, which can be a very wide-ranging offence, often incurring the death penalty.

There are a few other areas in the UDHR which are of concern to some Islamic states, but those seem to be the main ones. It is perhaps now not difficult to see why Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the guardian of Islam and Islamic values, has refused to sign or ratify UN human rights treaties. A number of Islamic countries have in recent years expressed dissent with the idea of universal human rights. In fact, an Iranian delegate described the UDHR as “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law”.

In 1990 the OIC adopted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). It is worthwhile comparing the UDHR with the CDHRI. The most striking difference is that the UDHR puts forward rights with no extra conditions. The CDHRI states:

  • Article 24: All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’a.
  • Article 25: The Islamic Shari’a is the only source of reference for the explanation or classification of any of the articles of this Declaration

Furthermore, the article on freedom of expression says:

  • Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’a.
  • Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.

The OIC initially tried to get the UN to adopt the CDHRI as an alternative to the UDHR. This bid was unsuccessful, but in 1997 they succeeded in getting listed (without any vote) as a regional human rights instrument. Recently, they have been attempting to get it recognised as complementary to the UDHR, which it clearly is not, since it restricts some of the rights outlined in the UDHR.

Freedom of expression

Having done my best to explain some of the background, I now come to the main question: the right to freedom of expression, as stated in Article 19 of the UDHR. In my opinion this is a key right. Without it, the individual has little protection or redress against abuses of other human rights by governments and others. Historically, freedom of expression was not encouraged by most regimes, although it famously forms part of the US Constitution. It is something that individuals have fought for over centuries, often paying with their lives in the struggle. It is something we should not lightly give up.

In many modern Islamic countries it is not a full right. Most of them have stringent laws against blasphemy, which is very widely interpreted. Blasphemy often incurs the death penalty. Because blasphemy is so ill-defined, it is very easy for someone to be convicted of it even if they had no intention of committing it.

Not content with blasphemy laws within their own territories, the OIC have for some years been working energetically to restrict freedom of expression in the international arena in order to protect “religion” (although, of course, they only have one religion in mind). Every year from 1999 to 2007 they succeeded in getting first the UNCHR and then the UNHRC to pass resolutions against “defamation of religion”, and finally in 2007 such a resolution was passed by the General Assembly of the UN. These resolutions validate repression of freedom of expression within Islamic countries and place some obligation on other countries to fall into line.

There is an innate absurdity in a human rights body trying to limit freedom of expression that is in any way critical of religion or which in some way offends believers. Religions do not have human rights: individual people do. And there can be no human right to be spared offence.

It is particularly ironic that the UNHRC, the international body that is supposed to protect human rights, should give so much effort to this issue and so little to any of the serious human rights abuses occurring across the world, with one exception: human rights abuse by Israel against the Palestinians. For example, no attention is paid to the actions of China in Tibet. Earlier this year, when there was a lot of concern in the West about this question, not only was it not dealt with in the Council, but NGOs were forbidden to mention it.

In fact repression of freedom of expression is thriving within the UNHRC itself. It was ruled earlier this year that the word “Shari’a” could not be mentioned in the Council, even though a speaker was attempting to talk about the question of the “complementarity” of the CDHRI with the UDHR. And another speaker was interrupted and prevented from finishing by a passionate declaration that “Islam will not be crucified in this Council!” The President of the Council ruled that there could be no discussion of religion or any criticism of the Shari’a or fatwas.

The UNHRC has a Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. The mandate of this individual had always been to report back to the Council on denials of the right to freedom of expression. In March this year, the mandate was changed. The Special Rapporteur was now required to report on “abuses” of the right. Too much free speech can be a bad thing in the Orwellian world of the UNHRC. See this report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

For more details on the fight for freedom of expression within the UN, see the IHEU website, which carries many reports.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in liberal democracies may shrug our shoulders and feel that none of this is all that important to us. But human rights campaigners in repressive countries need our support. They believe in the universality of human rights. Many of them are brave individuals who risk a great deal to fight for human rights. We should not fail them.

Within our societies there is an attitude of withdrawal from defence of freedom of expression. At the time of the Danish cartoon affair, when angry mobs were burning embassies, a very few courageous editors reprinted the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands Posten. Most were too scared. And politicians came out to criticise, not the dreadful overreaction, but the publication. Why weren’t they supporting the UDHR?

Recently the American author of a novel about the Prophet Muhammad’s child wife Aisha was unable to find a publisher in the USA. An English publishing house took the novel on and was firebombed as a result. Our society is giving in to the Islamists who would seek to censor what we can say. We are now exercising self-censorship, partly through fear of physical retaliation and partly through fear of being accused of Islamophobia. If we don’t try to preserve our freedoms, then bit by bit we shall lose them.


One Response

  1. […] The United Nations is again causing controversy with member states continuing their desire to set limits on freedom of expression. With Japanese Koichiro Matsuura stepping down as head of the UN’s Educational, Scientific and […]

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