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Arabs, Muslims battle US, Europeans over free speech at UN

AP [1]

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.