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Nigeria, OIC, move against religious defamation

By Chioma Gabriel, Deputy Editor
Nigeria amongst other African countries and Organisation of Islamic Countries, OIC,  is proposing what human rights organisations have described as  a potentially dangerous bill to the United Nations on “defamation of religion .

The bill was sent   to the Ad Hoc Committee for the Elaboration of Complementary Standards  in advance of the second session taking place in Geneva from 19 to 30 October 2009

The  OIC   is proposing  the development of “new  binding normative standards relating to religious ideas, objects and positions while incorporating contemporary issues” such as “defamation of religions, religious personalities, holy books, scriptures and symbols”; “provocative portrayals of objects of religious veneration as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance”; “prohibition of the publication of gratuitously offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred by the followers of any religion and ; “abuse of the right to freedom of expression in the context of racio-religious profiling”.

OIC and the African group are also proposing that a new instrument should provide for the “legal prohibition of publication of materials that negatively stereotypes, insults or uses of offensive language on matters regarded by followers of any religion or belief as sacred …” and “legal restriction to public insults”.

However, this development  is being contested by a group of  non -governmental organisations made up of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Human Rights Watch  and other    non-governmental organisations.

In a letter dated 20 October 2009, addressed to the UN Ad Hoc Committee for the Elaboration of Complementary Standards, this group of  NGOs  is  expressing concern about the submissions of OIC and the African Group, ( which includes Nigeria)  to the Ad Hoc Committee for the Elaboration of Complementary Standards  in advance of the second session taking place in Geneva from 19 to 30 October 2009.

The Ad Hoc Committee  on Elaboration of Complementary Standards  is meeting from the 19th-30th of October to consider how to fill in the “gaps” in the Convention on Discrimination and  Language put forth by the  African Group and OIC.

The OIC is proposing protection from offensive speech to religion while the African group is proposing  that the Ad Hoc Committee defines “Islamophobia”, “Anti-Semitism” and “Christianophobia”

But Article 19 and other non-governmental organisations, are contending these proposals.

According to the NGOs,  “our concerns about the submissions of the OIC and the African Group are informed by the principles of universality, interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, specifically freedom of expression and equality, as well as established international treaty law on these rights. We also base our comments on the progressive interpretation of international human rights law that supports the mutually reinforcing nature of the rights to freedom of expression and
equality.

“Our principal concerns relate to these submissions’ apparent inclusion of  religions, religious ideas, objects and personalities as subjects that warrant protection under international human rights law.

“Whilst we recognise that a number of individuals and groups face discrimination on the basis of their religion, such proposals for a new convention or additional protocol, if adopted by the Ad Committee, would threaten freedom of expression and equality within states. They would also have an impact upon the international human rights system itself, by obfuscating and distorting the focus of international human rights law since its inception upon individuals and groups.

“As our organizations previously pointed out and as duly noted by the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief and on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, does not protect religiouns per se. Instead, it should be the protection of individuals on the basis of their religion or ethnicity that should be of concern. We note that this position was further reaffirmed by the Outcome Document of the Durban Review Conference that also focuses on protecting the rights of individual believers, rather than belief systems.”

Article 19 further contends  that if the Ad Hoc Committee follows  up on the proposals of the OIC and the African Group, it would completely overlook the necessary role played by freedom of expression in the protection of equality.  “Instead, we strongly encourage the Ad Hoc Committee to focus on measures that promote diversity and pluralism, promote equitable access to the means of communication, and guarantee the right of access to information and creating an enabling environment for both freedom of expression and equality.”

The human rights groups   therefore  recommend  that the Ad Committee: rejects proposals for a convention or additional protocol that overstep in any way the long-established limits of international human rights law, principles and values which protect individuals and groups, rather than religious ideas, objects and symbols; supports the proper implementation by states of existing international human rights law on freedom of expression, as guaranteed by Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

On the proposal  by OIC and African group on legal prohibition of publication of material that negatively stereotypes, insults or uses of offensive language on matters regarded by followers of any religion or belief as sacred …” and “legal restriction to public insults, Article 19 finds “ this provision to be extraordinarily broad and would require the sanctioning of any material which stereotypes, insults or offends any believer of any religion.

In this way, critics of religions or religious interpretations, religious dissidents, adherent of minority religions and non-believers would all be criminalized  for expressing their opinions. Yet international law has never protected individuals from insults or offences to their religion. Moreover, these concepts would involve largely subjective issues of interpretation as nobody in a diverse society would agree to one common set of acceptable speech.  We note that the international law has always protected offensive speech in general precisely because of the subjective nature of the concept.”

On the issues of Islamophobia and Christianphobia, Atricle 19 argues that “these categories of phobias relating to Islam, Judaism and Christianity clearly discriminate against believers of other religions and non-believers. They also demand a specific interpretation of particular religions because they assume that these religions were themselves homogenous and uncontested internally, when in fact religious ideas are themselves open to interpretation and dynamic.”


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