A few days ago I noted a number of factual inaccuracies in a mindless segment on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight about a purported attempt by the United Nations to curb Americans’ freedom of expression. In the course of the course of responding to Lou Dobbs I made one inaccurate statement of my own. I said “There’s never been an anti-blasphemy resolution passed in the General Assembly and I don’t expect there ever will be.” While technically true, the General Assembly has taken up the functional equivalent in resolutions passed under the aegis of “Combating Defamation of Religions.”
There are a couple of further points I feel I should make about this.
If I were a member state at the UN, I would vote against these kinds of resolutions. I have a big problem with any sort of effort to curb the freedom of expression. Period. That said, I don’t see things like Organization for Islamic Conferences (OIC)-sponsored resolutions on blasphemy or the Anti-defamation of religion as serious threats to the freedom of expression worldwide. These are symbolic gestures with no real world effect, other than to (potentially) justify a kind of repression that already exists in the very states that vote for the resolution. As I said before, the impulse to include these measures tends to come from “secular” Muslim states like Egypt and Pakistan who do so to curry favor with their religious opposition.
The real “danger” (I’d actually say, “opportunity”) of these kinds of resolutions are their ability to create new international norms. Quoting a previous post, a good guide for how this process works is the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which was first proposed in 1976. Some thirty years later, there are 185 state parties to the convention–over 90% of UN member states. This does not mean that discrimination against women is now a thing of the past–far from it. But CEDAW has helped to make gender perspectives mainstream, both within and outside the UN system.
The big difference between CEDAW and the anti-blasphemy/anti-religious discrimination efforts is the fact that the anti-blasphemy stuff is supported by a pretty narrow coalition lead by the OIC. It’s a dirty little secret at the the UN, but unless the Europeans, Commonwealth countries and Japan all agree that something is a “human right” it doesn’t really count. General Assembly votes supported by OIC and a few other countries does not an international norm make. This is why, unlike Christopher Hitchens and Lou Dobbs, I can’t get myself too worked up about this bruhaha.