Thursday, February 16, 2006

A drive by a bloc of Islamic nations for a global ban on “defamation of religions and prophets” has thrown a major kink into U.S. hopes for an overhaul of the leading U.N. human rights body.

The proposal by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), floated last week amid violent protests over the publication in Europe of cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad, came as U.N. delegates were trying to negotiate the charter for a new Human Rights Council.

“It’s a giant monkey wrench in the process, and that is what it was designed to be,” said Hillel C. Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based United Nations Watch, a watchdog group that has closely followed the talks.

“To include this in the charter, just as an appeasement to violence, would taint the body before it even began,” he said.

The Bush administration has made reform of the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission a top priority, demanding tighter membership rules and new powers to target individual governments.

A number of leading human rights organizations say the current U.N. body has become a captive of the worst violators, who secure a seat on the commission just to block action against them.

Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson, president of the U.N. General Assembly, has been huddling with the major players since a draft charter text was circulated Feb. 1. Backers had hoped to have a deal before the next meeting of the current commission, set for mid-March in Geneva.

The OIC-proposed amendment states that “defamation of religions and prophets is inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression” and that governments and the press have a “responsibility in promoting tolerance and respect for religious and cultural values.”

Private human rights groups say the most problematic part of the amendment is a call for the new U.N. council to “prevent instances of intolerance, discrimination, incitement of hatred and violence arising from any actions against religions, prophets and beliefs which threaten the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Jennifer L. Windsor, executive director of the human rights group Freedom Watch, said the OIC effort was one of a number of attempts by nations and blocs at the United Nations to “dumb down the human rights standards.”

Freedom Watch has opposed anti-blasphemy laws both in Europe and the Islamic world as an infringement on free speech, she said. “It is never a good idea to protect one human right by repressing another.”

Mr. Neuer said the OIC proposal, as worded, would apply equally to anti-Semitic and anti-Christian articles and images that are carried by many Arab and Middle East news organizations, including many in state-controlled outlets.

“That just underscores the lack of good faith in what’s going on,” he said.

With talks at a critical juncture, U.S. officials have taken a guarded approach to the OIC idea.

“We’ve seen the language, and we are considering what to do,” U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton told reporters last week.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a Senate hearing yesterday that the Bush administration was insisting on real changes for the U.N. human rights body, including blackballing from membership any state under sanctions for terrorism or human rights abuses.

“This seems to us a rather self-evident matter, but it isn’t a terribly popular position, it turns out,” she said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters in New York last week he thought the OIC amendments were offered in good faith.

The Islamic bloc proposal “is not inflammatory,” Mr. Annan said. “I don’t think it is something that goes counter to the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or even freedom of the press.”

But T. Kumar, a human rights specialist with the Washington office of Amnesty International, said introducing such potentially far-reaching language so late in the process makes an agreement harder to reach.

“It would have been better for everyone if they had introduced this back in September when the first cartoons came out,” he said.

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