Tuesday, December 23, 2008

UN and Defamation: Something of a Scandal

I've been slow -- slower than Edmund Standing, Ophelia Benson, or Ed Brayton, certainly -- to take note of the latest idiocy from the United Nations:

The U.N. General Assembly condemned defamation of religion for the fourth year running on Thursday [12/18], ignoring critics who said the resolution threatens freedom of speech.

The non-binding resolution, championed by Islamic states and opposed by Western countries, passed by 86 votes to 53 with 42 abstentions ...

The seven-page text urges states to provide "adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general."

Critics said its provisions strike at basic rights of free expression and opinion. One clause states that exercise of those rights "carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to limitations."

Islamic states say such resolutions do not aim to limit free speech but to stop publications like the Danish cartoons showing the Prophet Mohammed that sparked bloody protests by Muslims around the world in 2005.
Behold the action portrayed in this description: the measure seeks "protection" against the likes of "hatred," "discrimination," "intimidation," and "coercion," all of which "result from" people saying or writing or drawing unkind things about religious beliefs. But that's not all: saying bad things about religion "sparked bloody protests" in this or that case.

It would be equally true to say that believing that god exists and cares deeply about whether he appears in cartoons "sparked bloody protests." Or, more generally, it would be equally true to say that believing that god exists and persists in a volatile, belligerent, peevish, verge-of-wrathful mood creates the difficulty with human expression. So where's the UN resolution limiting belief in captious, petty, tyrannical deities?

This nonsensical resolution flatly contradicts the principles of free speech and free belief as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), ratified in the same UN at a saner and wiser moment. Notably, while both expression and religion co-existed at the time it was ratified, the UDHR does not assume that the rights to these live in tension with one another, nor does it favor religion over expression in the face of that alleged tension -- note the absence of carved exceptions for "special duties":
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Free and civilized people should accept no diminutions of these rights.

As for the one targeted here, the principle underlying free expression is not difficult to grasp. In another case in which circumstances called for its explication, Noam Chomsky asked that we recall
Voltaire's famous words in a letter to M. le Riche: "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write." ... it is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended.
Shame on the UN for abandoning this essential principle.

1 comment:

UNRR said...

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 12/28/2008, at The Unreligious Right