Monday, 7 February 2011

How the U.N. Encourages Religious Murder Anti-blasphemy laws are barbaric and certainly don't deserve endorsement at Turtle Bay.


FEBRUARY 7, 2011


Mr. Rassbach is national litigation director and Mrs. Samelson McGuire is programs director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

On Jan. 4, Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's largest province, met a friend for lunch in Islamabad. On his way from the cafe to the car that afternoon, he was shot 26 times with a submachine gun.

Taseer, a Muslim, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards because of his vocal opposition to prosecuting Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, under Pakistan's blasphemy law. In a case that has transfixed Pakistani society, Ms. Bibi was sentenced to death last November for insulting Islam.

Because he was governor of Punjab, Taseer was pressured to mute his criticism. As he stated on Twitter days before he was killed: "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing."

The assassin, Islamic fundamentalist Mumtaz Qadri, is responsible for Taseer's death. But the United Nations is implicated too. How? It has repeatedly endorsed blasphemy laws like Pakistan's, in the name of defending religion.

The U.N. got into the business of supporting blasphemy laws more than 10 years ago. Since 1999, the U.N. General Assembly has passed a resolution every year that asks countries to take measures to prevent criticism of religion. The countries that sponsor the resolutions—including Pakistan—have always done so on behalf of the 47-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which votes as a bloc.

Originally, the annual resolution attacked "defamation of Islam." It has since come to focus on "defamation of religions" or, most recently, on the "vilification of religions." But this general language hasn't changed the resolution's purpose: Each year it calls on national governments to enact laws that protect religions against criticism.

The reason countries like Pakistan promote the resolution is so they can have an international-law justification for their existing blasphemy laws. The U.N.'s official line is that such laws protect religious minorities. In fact, they do just the opposite, as Taseer's assassination shows. In the days before the assassination, radical clerics led a violent 24-hour general strike protesting possible amendments to the blasphemy laws and supporting Ms. Bibi's death sentence.

Ms. Bibi's case is not an isolated event. Since Pakistan's modern embrace of blasphemy laws in 1979, more than 30 people accused of blasphemy have been killed by lynch mobs. The law is often used to gain advantage in commercial and property disputes. Since someone accused of blasphemy is guilty until proven innocent, the law creates powerful incentives for making false accusations. The U.N.'s annual resolution aids the accusers.

The one bit of good news is that support for the blasphemy resolution is sinking fast.

The Islamic Conference's shift from "defamation of religions" to "vilification of religions" was sparked by shrinking support from democratic governments such as South Korea. Despite the Islamic Conference's efforts to whitewash the blasphemy resolution's true intent, in 2010 the resolution passed by the narrowest margin ever. Seventy-nine countries voted in favor, 67 voted against, and 40 abstained—raising a strong possibility that it might soon be defeated.

But the U.N. can do more than that. The time has come for the international community not only to reject the resolution protecting blasphemy laws, but to directly condemn blasphemy laws as profound violations of freedom of religion and speech.

Governments that care about human rights should support a "Taseer Resolution" advocating the repeal of blasphemy laws and condemning their terrible effects on freedom of religion and thought. Protecting such values is the reason the U.N. was founded in the first place.

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