Austin Dacey – The U.N. and Defamation of Religions

July 14, 2014

Point of Inquiry is taking a week off and filling in with a classic episode from March 27, 2009. After Saudi Arabia recently tried to silence the Center For Inquiry’s UN representative, Josephine Macintosh, as she delivered a statement critical of their repeated assaults on freedom of religion, belief and expression, we felt that our Austin Dacey episode was fitting to fill in during our week off.

Austin Dacey serves as a representative to the United Nations for CFI, and is also on the editorial staff of Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines. His writings have appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times and USA Today. His new book is The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Austin Dacey details his trip to Geneva, Switzerland on behalf of the Center for Inquiry’s UN mission. He describes the UN lobbying efforts of the Center and its response to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolution “Combatting the Defamation of Religions.” He explains that despite legitimate concerns about stereotyping Muslims or racial profiling, this resolution equates any criticism or satire of religious beliefs with bigotry. He contrasts Europe’s position on free speech with the United States’ and how it is used by Islamic countries to justify their blasphemy laws, which often carry mandatory sentences of death or life in prison. He talks about how the Organization of the Islamic Conference at the United Nations aims to build into international human rights such legal standards that actually outlaw offensive speech against religions. And he argues that what should be protected under international human rights laws are individuals, and not ideas — that persons should be protected from harm and discrimination, as opposed to ideologies being protected from being criticized or satirized.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 27, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. I’m happy to have my old friend Austin Dacey on point of inquiry. He serves as a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry, and he’s also on the editorial staff of Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry magazines. His writings have appeared all over the place and The New York Times and USA Today. His new book is The Secular Conscience Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Austin Dacey, thanks so much, DJ Grothe. 

So what in the world are you doing in Geneva, Austin? 

I’m here for the 10th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on behalf of the Center for Inquiry, for which I serve as U.N. representative. 

Jim Underdown right. CFI has a consultative status with the United Nations, right? 

Yes, we have the right to lobby the United Nations as much as our DC office lobbies the U.S. government. And the issue that we’re paying very close attention to at this session is a resolution which has now become customary at the council called combating the definition of religions. And if past experience is any indicator, it is set to pass here in a day or two by a comfortable margin. 

So the United Nations Human Rights Council, it’s just passing a resolution. Doesn’t sound like it’s a law. It’s a resolution that says it’s bad to defame religion. 

So if this resolution passes, it will be another another victory for a coalition of Islamic states and their allies in what’s really become now a decade long campaign to limit freedom of expression. Out of respect for religious belief. Let me read you some of the language of this resolution and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It says, The Human Rights Council expresses deep concern at, quote, the continued serious instances of deliberate stereotyping of religions, their adherence and sacred persons in the media, as well as programs and agendas pursued by extremist organizations and groups aimed at creating and perpetuating stereotypes about certain religions, in particular when condoned by governments. Notes with deep concern, the intensification of the overall campaign of defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general, including the ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities. In the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001 and council, it goes on to say, urges all states to provide within their respective legal and constitutional systems adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general, and to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs. 

So what you just read asked and I have to admit, you know, it sounds pretty good to me. Don’t we, as citizens of the world, have an obligation to be sensitive to others religions, even if it’s legislated by the state? You look at all these conflicts over religion around the world. It actually involves one group offending another group over religion. If you outlaw that offense, doesn’t that encourage peace? 

Well, and unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The resolution, no doubt it. It tries to capitalize on some legitimate concerns that are out there in the in the era of the war on terrorism. There are legitimate concerns about stereotyping of Muslims or immigrants. And, of course, racial profiling. But what this resolution does is it equates any criticism or even satire of religious beliefs with discrimination, with anti-Muslim bigotry. And, of course, the American experiment has shown, above all things, that the solution to the problem of offensive speech is not criminal sanction, but. But more speech. 

Just better speech. All right. 

So you talked about this being a resolution of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations resolution. Sounds a little mamby pamby like it’s you know, it’s it’s not actually going to outlaw anything. It just says these things are bad. We resolve, you know, that you shouldn’t do. 

That’s right. It it doesn’t have the force of law, although I should say that the the General Assembly, given eight nations, has passed similar resolutions since 2005. Similarly non-binding, but they are actually worse than useless. They’re dangerous. And that’s because the United Nations retains for better, for worse, a great degree of moral authority around the world. And what’s of particular concern to us and a broad range of civil society organizations is that these pronouncements. Will will do nothing but lend legitimacy to the repression of political and religious dissent around the world and particularly in the Islamic countries. Now, for example, one of the leading sponsors of this resolution is the government of Pakistan. Now, Pakistan actually has blasphemy laws which carry mandatory sentences of death or life in prison. And these are often used under the pretext of protecting the dignity of the prophet. And so on in a campaign of persecution against peaceful minority Muslim sects such as the media community. And so, interestingly, the most persistent critics of this campaign undertaken by this so-called organization of the Islamic Conference to to protect Islam, the most vocal critics are human rights advocates from within the Islamic countries because they know that this high minded talk about safeguarding belief abroad will only mean in practice the abuse of power at home against them. 

Elaborate on that for me. You mentioned the organization of the Islamic Conference. They wanted to take it a step further, not just a resolution. Right. But they are they calling for something more than the Human Rights Council at the United Nations is calling for? 

Yes, we really have to see this resolution as part of a longer and very well planned campaign to build into international human rights, legal standards, a kind of blasphemy prohibition. 

So not just a resolution, but actually to outlaw blasphemy around the world. 

That’s right. To outlaw religiously offensive speech in international law. We have to look carefully at the way that the language of this resolution has been evolving in the debates that I just read you. We hear a number of confessions going on. There’s a conflation first between no criticism or satire of one’s belief, including things like publishing, you know, a cartoon of the prophet, which doesn’t hurt anyone. On the one hand and what’s called advocacy of religious hatred, which constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. 

Now, that language is very important because it actually reflects a category of speech which is not protected, which which may be prohibited under international human rights standards. 

The covenants and treaties that the different international law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Now, these treaties, which do have the force of law and which have been signed by, you know, most or all of the U.N. member states do carve out a category of speech which may be outlawed incitement. And so at the OIC is trying to do now is they’re trying to collapse cases of religiously offensive speech into incitement and thereby to build in legal protections for their particular beliefs. Mm hmm. 

We were talking off air Auston about how the Center for Inquiry has a unique perspective about all of this blasphemy laws, free speech, especially when it comes to criticism of religion. Elaborate on all of that for me, especially, you know, I guess in the context of Europe and blasphemy laws. 

Yes. Well, the Center for Inquiry has only been at the U.N. for a couple of years now and have only been active and engaged at the Human Rights Council since last fall. But one of the things that we discovered when we got there was that there was very little kind of thoroughgoing secularist voice represented at the council. There are a number of civil society groups that are sort of known for their vocal defense of Israel, which is not a very popular cause of the United Nations. There are a number of groups that kind of defend the religious liberties of different communities, whether they be Christian or or behi or what have you. And there, of course, is the venerable international humanist and Ethical Union, which has been active at the council for a long time. But we didn’t have was a group that was sort of politically uncommitted. And which defended a secular answer to this question. So what is the secular answer to this question in the negotiations over that language of this resolution, which I participated in when the sponsors of the resolution in this case, represented by delegate from Pakistan, were were pressed by the Americans and the Canadians and the European Union who are all quite strongly opposed to this this resolution. When pressed, the sponsor would say, well, free speech is not absolute. And we know that from the example of Europe. After all, it’s still illegal to say or write certain things in Germany and France and in many other places about the Holocaust. Most European states have very robust hate speech laws and laws against anti Semitic speech. There are also a number of existing blasphemy laws which have been used in the modern era as late as 1994. The European Court of Human Rights ruled to uphold the Austrian blasphemy law, under which a filmmaker’s offensive film about Catholicism, which was confiscated and was was refused showing to the public. 

This is in modern Western Europe. This is an in some backward totalitarian Muslim state. 

Right. Blasphemy laws are alive and well in Europe, although some states such as Holland and the UK have begun repealing them out of recognition of the fact that they’re really a vestige of a previous era when the states could comfortably consider themselves Christian in character. The realities of multicultural Britain have dashed that idea, and to their credit, they’ve gotten rid of their blasphemy law. But it still persists. And more troublesome is that, as they say, the European human rights courts have ruled that the suppression of hateful speech or religiously offensive speech, when it’s about Christians are used to put it crudely, is OK and is not an infringement on the guarantee of freedom of expression under international law. So the Islamic states can point to this and say, wait a second, why is it that you can suppress offensive speech? You know, in Austria. But we can’t do it in Egypt. All we’re asking is that you can fairly extend the, you know, the same the same privileges to our governments here in the Arab and Muslim world. 

So the Center for Inquiry is also saying, hey, we want consistency. But if you don’t think it should be in the Muslim world, it shouldn’t be in Europe either. 

That’s right. In, you know, in introductory Polaski classes, that argument, compelling as it may be too many. Is this called the fallacy of of two wrongs making a right? And the other solution is a course to remove all special privileges and protections for religious belief as such. What we protect under human rights law are individuals, not ideas. We protect persons from harassment, from discrimination. We don’t protect ideologies from from being battered or or bruised or satirized. Mm hmm. 

Austin, specifically, what CFI doing about all of this? You mentioned your participation in, you know, working on the language of the resolution. But what else as an organization are we doing? 

Well, the United Nations has created a space for civil society organizations to lobby and participate in the deliberations here and in that space. We have submitted written and oral statements. We submitted a statement to this session about how best to interpret incitement so as not to outlaw insult. And we’ve delivered oral statements on this matter of defamation of religions to the plenary session of the council. But more informally, we can participate in the consultations and the. Asians about draft language of resolutions. And, you know, just have a coffee with the the the delegates. I found myself in a private conversation for about 30 minutes with the Pakistani chair of the of the resolutions. And that was quite fascinating. 

You think we’re changing anybody’s minds? 

Well, the resolution has been losing votes. It lost a few votes at the General Assembly last December. And we’re hopeful that we can shave off a few from the upstream column. The interesting thing about this in this 47 voting member Human Rights Council, is that there were 14 countries that abstained. 

Regrettably, the council is locked in a political deadlock basically over Israel, right? 

Yes. Basically, the council is actually the second incarnation of a body that would purportedly monitor and enforce the universal human rights standards that were articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago. Now, the original body, the Commission on Human Rights, was disbanded because it had become too politicized at the time. Even even Kofi Annan for that. So there was great hope that this reorganized council, United Nations Human Rights Council, begun in 2006, wouldn’t escape that politicization. But sadly, it has not. Of all the resolutions that have been passed since a council was created, 80 percent of them have been censoring Israel. And of the 20 worst human rights abusers, according to Freedom House in its annual survey, only Myanmar in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have had resolutions passed about them. And this is because the council has divided into a number of voting blocs who basically do each other favors. And the Organization of the Islamic Conference, led by Egypt and Pakistan, is extremely powerful. And they have created a unbeatable voting bloc, which includes them and the so-called non aligned group, many developing world nations and the African group. And so they can basically get through anything that they want. The council, since it is a democracy where every country gets one vote. So, for example, in March 2008, the definition of religions. Resolution passed by 21 in favor to ten against with 14 abstentions. And among those abstentions were some kind of unlikely. Countries like like Japan, India, Korea, Brazil, Mexico. So these are countries that, for political reasons, didn’t want to stick their neck out in what they saw as a kind of a political clash of civilizations, really, between the self-appointed representatives of the Muslim world and the West. 

And you’re saying CFI sees it in a different way, not as this clash of civilizations, but kind of the same rules for everybody. 

Yeah, it’s it’s not the the West versus the rest. It’s the free versus the unfree. And of course, as I mentioned before, the Organization of the Islamic Conference does not even represent the interests of their member states like that, the young people of Iran, let alone the so-called Muslim world, whatever that might be. That’s why we see the strongest protest against all this coming from groups like the Cairo Institute for Human Rights or secular Muslim organizations, as small as they are. Absolutely. So it’s it’s not about Islamic civilization versus to do Christian civilization. It’s about equal freedom for all. That is the common standard of achievement. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it 60 years ago, that we are still struggling to meet for all. 

Last question. Austin, you’ve detailed what the Center for Inquiry is doing at the United Nations about all of this. But what can our listeners do, if anything, regarding these blasphemy laws or blasphemy resolutions happening at the United Nations? 

Well, first, for people who want to learn more. I would encourage them to go to our Web site, which is w w w dot center for inquiry, dot net slash u n where they can find background reading and some of the statements that we’ve been making. But of course, it’s also important for people to put pressure on their their national governments who are involved in the U.N. deliberations. Now, for your U.S. listeners, that should come in the form of congratulatory phone calls and e-mails because the U.S. is reengaged in the council and has really been quite good on these issues. 

Is that especially under Obama or was that happening before? 

No, that’s something that came about with the new administration. The Canadians have also been very good on this. But certainly listeners out there from, you know, from Japan and India should be holding their their state’s feet to the fire. So certainly I would encourage people to get involved with their own governments and express their their concerns about these issues. 

Thanks very much for the discussion. Austin based. My pleasure. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.