Freedom of expression, Middle East core of Durban II negotiations

This morning’s debate at the U.N. Human Rights Council, in the Intercessional Working Group for the Durban Review Conference (“Durban II”), centered on a few topics in which state opinions widely diverged. One such bone of contention was the issue of freedom of expression vs. speech limitations to prevent criticism of religions (“defamation of religions”). Another involved controversial “past injustices,” including the “plight of Palestinians”/condemnation of Israel, as well as the demand that Western countries pay reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“Combating Defamation of Religions” vs. Freedom of Expression
Pakistan, speaking for the group of Islamic states (OIC), objected to paragraph 56, which “Stresses that the right to freedom of opinion and expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic, pluralistic society,” saying that it did not see how this relates to the conference’s focus on racism. Moreover, it protested that the clause promotes the “unfounded myth” that it is problematic to prohibit speech that incites religious hatred (code for “defamation of religions”).

The Czech Republic, speaking for the European Union (EU), objected to paragraphs that argue for restrictions on expression to prohibit “negative stereotyping” and the “incitement to hatred,” as well as one that prohibits racist organizations.

Cuba argued that paragraphs about freedom of speech and expression should be moved to the more passive Section 1, which reviews progress of states rather than demanding action from them.

Cuba also endorsed mention of the ad hoc committee on complementary standards, an Algerian-chaired U.N. committee that is seeking to add an additional protocol to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) that would define criticism of religion as a violation. Cuba complained that paragraph 123 on follow-up mechanisms to the 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA), did not, at the least, take note of the work and road-map of the ad hoc committee and invite states to take part in its proceedings.

South Africa objected to paragraphs 32-34 regarding the ICERD. Paragraph 32 states that the ICERD “is the principal international instrument to prevent, combat and eradicate racism,” which could imply that there is no need for an additional protocol to the convention—specifically, the one that they are pushing to criminalize “defamation of religions.” Paragraph 34 mentions “multiple forms of discrimination,” which could include issues of gender and sexual orientation. In past negotiations, South Africa vocally protested inclusion of issues of sexual orientation in the Durban II declaration.

Middle East
Syria complained that paragraphs 63 and 64 on combating impunity for genocide and recalling the Holocaust failed to take into consideration the viewpoints of states during the February working group. He complained that the paragraphs were not “victims oriented,” saying Syria “will never be party to a ceremonial or redundant activity,” which fails to address “the agony of millions of victims, especially within countries with a blatant, institutionalized basis of racism” (read: Israeli “racism” against Palestinians). It added, “We will never support the surviving apartheid regime.” It also railed against those who have threatened boycott of Durban II, arguing, “Threatening to boycott or walkout is no longer acceptable within the framework of international cooperation.”

Anti-West bias
China, Cuba, and South Africa argued that there needs to be more work on paragraphs 60-62 on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. China said these paragraphs should be more “victims oriented,” implying support for the African-led effort to demand that Western countries pay reparations for the past injustice.

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