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The UN Human-Rights Council restricts freedom of expression regarding the “defamation of religion” and Argentina and Uruguay abstained
March 31, 2009

The Center for Opening and Development of Latin America (CADAL) calls the attention of the Argentine and Uruguayan governments, as they made a severe constitutional omission with their abstention from voting against this resolution that was discussed within the Human-Rights Council on the 26th of March.

The text proposed by the governments of Pakistan, Venezuela and Belarus, refers to the “defamation of religion”. The intention of this proposal is to prevent any form of criticism referring to Islam and its contents. This fact is paraphrased in a global tendency towards violent acts against freedom of opinion regarding these issues, as is reflected by the recent incident concerning the Danish caricatures of Mohammed, a central figure in Islam.

The resolution in question includes, within its key passages, the following decisions, whereupon the subject of each paragraph represents the Human-Rights Council at large (the most important concepts of each paragraph are in bold letters):

Article 5: Observes with deep concern the intensification of the campaign referring to religious defamation and the incitement to religious animosity in general, and  in particular the negative characterization to which Muslim minorities recently have been object to with regard to their ethnic origin and their religion, in consequence of the tragic occurrences of September 11th, 2001.

Article 7: Expresses deep concern regarding the fact that, frequently and without reason, Islam is associated with human-rights violation and terrorism and, in this context, prosecutes the introduction of laws or administrative dispositions with the special purpose to control and monitor the Muslim minorities, who are thereby stigmatized and their discrimination becomes legitimized.

Article 9: Deplores the use of the press and other means of communication, Internet included, which are employed to commit acts of violence, xenophobia or aligned forms of intolerance and discrimination against any religion, as well as to attack religious symbols and venerated persons.

Article 10: Emphasizes that, as is determined by international human-rights norms, in particular by the 19th and 29th article of the Universal Declaration of Human-Rights as well as by the 19th and 20th article of the International Civil-Rights Pact, everyone has a right to give his opinion without being persecuted and the accomplishment of these rights entail duties and special responsibilities and therefore can be seen as a subject to the limitations that the law considers necessary for the protection of these rights or the reputation of others, the protection of the national security or of the public policy, the public health or the morality and the common well-being.

Article 13: Admonishes every single state to provide, within the limits of its legal framework and constitutional system, adequate protection against hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion derived from the defamation of religions and the incitement to religious animosity in general, and to adopt every possible means to enhance the tolerance and respect of all religions and faiths.

Article 15: Requests every single state to do everything possible, in accordance with its national legislation and the international human-rights rules and the international humanitarian right, to warrant that sacred locations that are considered to be religious symbols are respected and protected and that additional means are applied in case these were exposed to profanation or destruction.

The resolution was approved by an overwhelming majority: 26 states voted in favor, 11 against the resolution and 13 abstained from voting. Within Latin America, governments that are somehow associated to Islamic dictatorships accompanied the positive voting, as it was the case of Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.

The remaining Latin-American states decided to abstain from voting, except one. While Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay try to avoid this subject, Chile for a change voted with Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom for the rejection of this resolution.

It is worth to consider the following constitutional aspects.

The 14th article of the Argentine Constitution expresses:

All residents of the Argentine Nation enjoy the following rights according to the laws that regulate their applications: to work and to exercise within every legal industry; to navigate and to trade; to make petitions to authorities; to enter, to stay, to travel and to depart within the Argentine territory; to publish their ideas by all means of the media without previous censorship; to use and to dispose of their property; to associate for useful purposes; to freely practice their religions; to teach and to learn

On the part of the Uruguayan Constitution it says in the 29th article:

The communication of thoughts through words is entirely free, whether privately written or published by the press or any other form of proliferation, without the necessity of previous censorship, with the author and, in this case, the printer or transmitter being responsible, and with legal regulation in the case of abuse.

Hence, both documents recognize and guarantee the essential right of every person to freely express his opinion. The demand of the UN-resolution to intervene in this area constitutes a rude insult to both countries, to the specific text of their constitutions as well as to the liberal spirit that led these countries throughout their history.

Furthermore, the dangerous proposals of the Islamic dictatorships convey innumerable practical problems, like the ones that refer to casual education or mention within the media and consequently can be considered “defamation of religion”.

This sort of resolution pretends to give rights to abstract concepts like religion and cultural symbols, with everything that is legally implicated by the term “right”. It is essential that countries like Argentina and Uruguay defend their tradition to respect the human rights as individual rights and contribute to avoid this worrying tendency.