News and Notes: Ambiguous Wording

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

The Obama administration achieved a diplomatic coup at the United Nations this month when the Human Rights Council unanimously passed a resolution on freedom of expression that was jointly sponsored by the United States and Egypt (

The unanimous vote appeared to settle a confrontation between the members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which seek to make blasphemy an international crime, and Western nations that uphold protections for individual expression against suppression by government. The resolution is a peace offering to the “Muslim street” and our Arab allies, to show a new spirit of sympathy and flexibility not evident during the Bush administration.  

While not expressly endorsing blasphemy prosecutions, the administration departed from other Western allies by balancing freedom of speech against protection for religion. This is of particular concern to the International Humanist Ethical Union (IHEU), a non-governmental organization with Observer status on the Council, which has stressed in discussions that only individuals, and not religions, have rights that the Council must protect. The Muslim states argue that individual rights are always accompanied by responsibilities, which is their justification for the right of governments to censor and prosecute opposition.  

The resolution has no force in law, but it provides Muslim countries with moral authority to suppress domestic dissidents and to shame international critics for “negative religious stereotyping.” The U. S. State Department crowed that “in adopting this resolution, the Human Rights Council gives clear voice to a shared international understanding of the responsibilities of governments to condemn and address hate speech and to promote respect and tolerance.” But the boundary between hate speech and rational criticism is political, and the Muslim nations accepted the resolution as supporting laws against blasphemy “to promote respect and tolerance.”  

Even in the West, protection for the right to criticize religion is in decline. In the years since the Cartoon Intifada in 2005, blasphemy prosecutions in Europe have increased to deter critics who might, by offending Muslims, provoke renewed violence. The United States has a uniquely absolute protection of freedom of expression, leading some to assert that the Human Rights Council Resolution on Freedom of Expression would be ruled unconstitutional if it were ever adopted here. Fear of violence has cowed many critics into self-censorship, however. Recently, Yale University Press published The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen, on the original Mohammed cartoons, yet deleted the cartoons themselves!  

Improving cooperation with Muslim states may be a very practical diplomatic tactic, but it is not worth trading away the recognition by the United Nations of freedom of expression as a universal human right. In the near future, the Human Rights Council will have to decide what this bill actually means when Muslim nations use it to justify jailing religious dissidents for blasphemy, or demand that other nations silence critics of Islam. The Obama administration is likely to find that solid relations between nations cannot be built on ambiguous wording.

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