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The United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution on defamation of religion last week, much to the dismay of IFEX members who say the measure is a serious blow to the right to freedom of expression.

"This decision brings discredit on the UN Human Rights Council, which should not justify censorship and the stifling of dissenting voices," said the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).

The Council's resolution, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and approved by the Council on 26 March, calls for a global fight against "defamation of religions". Islamic countries argue that criticising or satirising religions is a violation of the rights of believers and leads to discrimination and violence against them.

The resolution was passed by a vote of 23-11, with 13 abstentions. Freedom House, which co-organised a petition signed by more than 180 organisations worldwide against the resolution, said it was "especially disappointed that South Africa, a liberal democracy whose citizens have a deep understanding of how such laws are used to punish dissenters, continues to back these resolutions."

According to IFEX members, the defamation of religion concept can be used by authoritarian governments to stifle debate and criticism of religions and religious institutions.

"These countries are using the UN to expand and bring legitimacy to their frontal assault on freedom of expression," said Freedom House. "This assault starts at the level of domestic blasphemy laws present in many OIC countries, which are routinely employed to harass and imprison religious minorities, political dissenters and human rights advocates, and is elevated to the international level through resolutions at the UN."

According to ARTICLE 19 and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the resolution is the latest in a series on the subject of "defamation of religions". The first was adopted in 1999 by the UN Commission on Human Rights. ARTICLE 19 and CIHRS voiced "extreme concern" that the cumulative effect of these resolutions serves to undermine established international human rights guarantees on the right to freedom of expression but also on the rights to freedom of religion and to equality.

"It is shameful and disappointing. Unfortunately, it is also unsurprising given the way this issue has unfolded in the UN over the last decade," said ARTICLE 19.

According to Freedom House, text condemning "defamation of religions" was originally part of a draft declaration to be issued at the Durban II anti-racism conference in Geneva next month. But it was withdrawn after Western nations said they would pull out of the UN conference unless it was removed.

Visit these links:
- ARTICLE 19/CIHRS, "ARTICLE 19 and CIHRS condemn adoption of resolution on combating defamation of religions":
- Freedom House, "Free expression assault continues at Human Rights Council":
- WAN, "World's press condemns UN Council's decision on defamation of religion":
- "Combating Defamation of Religions" resolution:
(1 April 2009)

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