GENEVA: Arab and Muslim countries defended Tuesday a resolution they pushed through at the United Nations to have the body’s expert on free speech police individuals and news media for negative comments on Islam.
The United States, Canada and some European countries criticized the role reversal for Kenyan legal expert Ambeyi Ligabo, who has reported to the global body on measures by dictatorships and repressive governments to restrict free speech.
The U.S. and other Western nations warned that the Muslim-backed resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council could curtail freedom of expression and help dictatorial regimes block dissenting views.
“The resolution adopted attempts to legitimize the criminalization of expression,” said Warren W. Tichenor, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva.
The statement proposed by Egypt and Pakistan, which passed 32–0 last week at the council, seeks to impose “restrictions on individuals rather than to emphasize the duty and responsibility of governments to guarantee, uphold, promote and protect human rights,” Tichenor told the 47-nation body.
The United States is not a member of the council but has the right to speak as an observer. European countries and others abstained from voting last week.
The resolution was the latest move initiated by the Arab and Muslim countries dominating the council to protect Islam from religious hatred and defamation. Islamic groups have been demanding limits on free speech ever since a Danish magazine published caricatures of Muhammad, provoking riots across the Islamic world in 2006.
Muslim countries also have cited the recent release of an anti-Islamic Dutch film and the Pope’s controversial comments on the religion in demanding tighter controls on free expression.
The council has no enforcement powers but is supposed to act as a moral conscience. Last week, it adopted a separate resolution urging countries to enact anti-defamation laws specifically to protect Muslims.
Slovenia’s ambassador, Andrej Logar, speaking on behalf of the European Union, warned that Ligabo’s role as an independent expert was shifting from protecting free speech toward limiting it.
Terry Cormier, a member of the Canadian delegation, said, “The job of a special rapporteur is not to police the action of individuals.”
Pakistan’s ambassador, Masood Khan, speaking on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, denied the resolution would limit free speech. It only tries to make freedom of expression responsible, he said.
Egypt’s Ambassador Sameh Shoukry said there was a growing trend to erode human rights law, permitting “some of the worst practices that incite racial and religious hatred.”
Ligabo told the Associated Press in an interview last month that he was against any incitement of hatred based on religious belief. But he said, “We advocate the rights of individuals, not of a particular belief or ideology.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the amendment.
“It turns someone who is supposed to defend freedom of opinion into a prosecutor whose job is to go after those who abuse this freedom,” Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said.