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Over the past year, citizens around the globe have joined hands in a series of events celebrating the 60th anniversary of a historic milestone, the signing in December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The treaty spelled out for the first time in history an agreed international standard by which governments may be judged for their treatment of their own citizens.

Unfortunately, some of this year’s festivities have taken on an unexpectedly tense tone. A coalition of developing nations has emerged that not only flouts international human rights standards but also actively opposes them as a Western imposition. The United Nations, never a very effective protector of human rights, has wilted in the face of the assault.

The pushback has been percolating since at least 2001, when a landmark U.N. racism conference in Durban, South Africa, turned into a weeklong orgy of antisemitism, as some senior U.N. officials now admit. A Durban II follow-up conference is now planned for April 2009, this time to be held in Geneva, and it could be as nasty as the first one unless careful steps are taken.

And grimmer things may lie ahead. An initiative is currently working its way through the United Nations system, spearheaded by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an association of Muslim nations, that would not only defy accepted human rights standards, but also turn the very notion of human rights on its head.

As our Marc Perelman reported last week, the Muslim nations aim to pass a resolution through the U.N. General Assembly, calling for a ban on published material that defames or promotes disrespect for religion. The measure purports to defend all religions, but the only one cited by name is Islam.

A version of the measure was adopted by the General Assembly in 2005 and is due to expire next year. That version, though lacking enforcement power, succeeded in laying down an important marker. In effect, it was the Muslim nations’ announcement to the world that the democratic West is not the only power bloc capable of exporting its values — that is, imposing them on others.

Supporters of this initiative tout it as a defense of religious freedom. What it entails, however, is actually the opposite of freedom as understood in the West. It does not seek to defend the rights of individuals to believe and practice as they choose. Rather, it safeguards a faith community’s right to avoid insult or criticism by limiting other people’s’ rights of free expression. It is, in fact, a direct assault on a fundamental Western value, in defense of a different value: namely, protecting an existing doctrine from free inquiry and debate — the sort of thing that the West long ago rejected.

The current renewal measure passed an initial vote last spring in the General Assembly’s committee on social, cultural and human rights. It must pass the committee again before coming to the full General Assembly. Gearing up for the effort to renew the resolution next year, the OIC voted last March to strengthen the existing measure by adding “legal instruments” for enforcement.

The sponsors appear to be following a strategy used by Israel’s enemies in 1975 in promoting the infamous U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism. That measure came first to a committee for initial approval. Before going to the full General Assembly, however, it was brought to a U.N. conference on women’s rights, held that summer in Mexico City. Passage there helped build momentum for the Zionism-equals-racism resolution in the General Assembly. Similarly, the new defamation measure is to be presented at the upcoming Durban II conference, before going to the full General Assembly.

Sponsors say their overall goal is to ban speech that mocks or criticizes Islam. It is meant to counter what many Muslims see as a wave of anti-Islamic prejudice in the West in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But clear-eyed Westerners see something more subtle and sinister. In the first instance, it is an effort to suppress criticism of Islam, making it more difficult for Western societies to conduct public debate on the challenges posed by radical, fundamentalist Islam. In that sense, it is a counter-thrust against those who call for an Islamic soul-searching or reformation, and those who demand that Islam confront its violent radicals.

The American Jewish Congress showed leadership and good timing in launching its interfaith coalition this month to fight the resolution. Particular praise is due to the Christian and Muslim coalition partners for the courage they have demonstrated in stepping forward. We can’t say the same for the liberal groups and human rights organizations that refused to sign on, evidently fearing to offend their friends on the left. There’s too much at stake here for those games.

More broadly, if the OIC is truly interested in protecting religious freedom, then the Muslim nations need to make that clear by extending the same protections to their own religious minorities. Indeed, the rights and protections demanded for Islam in the West are nowhere granted to other religions in the Islamic world. Christian proselytizing is banned in most Muslim countries, and punishable by death in some. In some countries, death is also the penalty for conversion to Christianity. As for Judaism, it has been all but eliminated in most of the Islamic world.

And if Muslim leaders want others to stop defaming Islam’s central tenets, such as the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad, they might practice what they preach by speaking out against those who defame the central tenets of Judaism — such as the centrality of Jerusalem.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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Return to Durban

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