The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
The outbreak of furious protests across the Muslim world including Pakistan, against an anti-Islam film again focuses attention on what can be done to avoid cycles of provocative action and enraged reaction. Violent and destructive responses cannot be justified in any circumstances. But this does not detract from the need to address the very real problem of hate speech and find an internationally acceptable legal and diplomatic way to prevent actions that offend religious sensibilities, encourage Islamophobia and incite violence.
In this backdrop Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf’s address on ‘Yaum-e-Ishq-e-Rasool’ day made a surprising omission. He failed to mention the diplomatic efforts Pakistan has spearheaded on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) for the past thirteen years.
It is instructive to recall these to highlight Pakistan’s active diplomacy, unresolved issues in the international debate, and disagreements that are barriers to global problem solving on an issue that is becoming worse, not going away.
The first effort by Muslim countries was led by Pakistan, at the OIC’s behest, when it moved a draft resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 1999 titled ‘Defamation of Islam’. This aimed to combat what Muslim countries saw as a campaign to defame Islam, which could provoke violence against Muslims like past anti-Semitic hostility. The resolution was eventually retitled, ‘Defamation of Religions’ after Western nations objected to the exclusive focus on Islam and urged its extension to all religions. The amended resolution was adopted by consensus. It asked states to take all steps, consistent with their national legal framework, to “combat hatred, discrimination, intolerance and acts of violence”.
Between 1999 and 2010, the Commission and then the reconstituted Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted similar resolutions every year, first by consensus, and after 2001 by majority vote. Since 2005 the General Assembly also adopted these resolutions, even though the US and Western countries kept opposing them.
Although the resolutions had no binding effect, their moral authority was seen by advocates as a way of exerting pressure on governments to take measures to prevent the propagation of hatred against religions and especially curb the rise in Islamophobia in Europe. The 2005 Danish cartoons controversy intensified the OIC’s campaign. It was hoped that successive resolutions would help shape global behaviour on the issue.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the environment changed dramatically. US-led Western nations started actively opposing the defamation resolution in the UN. Support for the resolution began to erode under Western pressure. Many Asian, African and Latin American countries began to switch from abstaining to voting against the resolution.
When the US was elected to the HRC for the first time in 2010, it decided to be more proactive to defeat the defamation resolution. The ensuing debate revolved around two arguments pressed by Western representatives. One, that the legal concept of defamation applied to individuals, not to a set of beliefs, philosophy or religion. And two – still at the heart of present contention between the West and the Muslim world – that freedom of expression was paramount and defamation resolutions violated that principle. Another argument of Western human rights groups was that the resolution amounted to an international blasphemy law.
While these debates raged and support for the resolution eroded in 2009-2010, the OIC Secretary General urged all the member countries to intensify diplomatic efforts. As coordinator of the OIC group, Pakistan’s ambassador at Geneva, Zamir Akram ensured that the defamation resolution was adopted in March 2010. India abstained while the US and Western nations again opposed the resolution.
This outcome urged the US to propose to Pakistan and other OIC countries that a compromise resolution be evolved in the next session of the Council. OIC countries received this offer positively. Members reasoned that if the very countries, where Islamophobia was spreading, opposed the resolution, this would be self-defeating as they would not be morally obliged to take measures urged by the resolution.
In discussions that followed, the word ‘defamation’ became a sticking point with the US and its allies calling for its deletion. Pakistan and the Islamic bloc insisted that this change of language be considered only in return for the commitment by Western nations to take measures to prevent the denigration of Islam and counter Islamophobia.
The 2011 session of the HRC saw the OIC sponsor a resolution that reflected this compromise. Adopted by consensus, the resolution became one to combat intolerance, stigmatization and incitement to violence. The debate shifted from defamation to religiously motivated hatred and “incitement to imminent violence”. At the core of the compromise resolution were several practical measures that states were enjoined to take to counter rising incidents of intolerance, negative stereotyping and violence across the world. This text was also adopted by the General Assembly in 2010.
Pakistan and the OIC countries saw this as the first step in international acknowledgement of the fact that the issue of religious stigmatization and incitement to hatred or violence could no longer be avoided in any society. Pakistan’s envoy in Geneva pointed out that Islamophobia was being cynically used by right wing parties in economically challenged Europe to promote hatred against Muslims and other minority communities.
Also stressed was the notion that religious discrimination and Islamophobia were contemporary forms of racism and had to be addressed accordingly. If the denial of the holocaust could be outlawed in European countries, discrimination against Muslims merited similar treatment. Attention was also addressed to the use of the Internet and media to fuel anti-Muslim hatred, something the 2010 resolution explicitly and presciently warned against and condemned.
Since the consensus resolution of 2011, debate at the HRC continues to lay bare the gap between Western nations, insisting on the unqualified principle of freedom of expression and OIC nations asserting that this should not mean freedom to insult other religions. Muslim representatives have also pointed to international law acknowledging that freedom of speech was not absolute but entailed special duties and responsibilities. As expressed in articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), freedom of expression was “subject to certain restrictions” and called for the prohibition by law of “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.
It is where the line should be drawn between the freedom of expression and incitement to violence that continues to divide Western and Muslim countries. Although the 2011 and 2012 resolutions tried to bridge this chasm the real issue is the practical application of its provisions.
Here the gap between words and government actions remains wide. This has been exposed by the tragic turn of events sparked by an incendiary film made in California but condemned by the Obama administration. Lack of implementation of undertakings contained in the 2011 and 2012 consensus resolutions can now be expected to engage the OIC countries in more active diplomacy. There are already longstanding calls from Muslim countries for operative provisions of these resolutions to have the force of international law, starting with an elaboration of articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR.
In what will likely be intricate international diplomacy at the UN the question that should be carefully considered by member states is whether it is in their interest to allow the present free-for-all where ill-motivated individuals abuse cyber space and the media to cause grave offense and incite violence that destabilises nations and communities and deepens the mistrust between the West and the Muslim world. With their large Muslim Diasporas Western nations should have an interest in finding solutions.
For their part, Muslim nations, Pakistan included, can strengthen their case on the international stage if they demonstrate that they treat their own religious minorities with the same respect they expect from others. As one of today’s prominent Muslim thinkers, Tariq
Ramadan recently put it, “the violent reactions to the insults uttered against the Prophet have driven Muslims to behaviours far removed from the principles of Islam”.