African, Islamic groups complain about U.N. free speech report

Today at the U.N. Human Rights Council, Pakistan speaking for the Islamic Group and Egypt speaking for the African Group voiced their concerns that the U.N. expert on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Mr. Franck La Rue Lewy, stepped outside of the bounds of his mandate by issuing a report that stresses the importance of free speech. The Islamic and African groups had also been active last year in the successful drive in the Council to change the expert’s mandate.  Instead of reporting on problematic restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, the expert is now tasked with reporting on “abuses” of the right (e.g. criticism of religion, particularly Islam).

In fact, Mr. La Rue’s report and opening remarks today at the Council did stress the need for certain speech limitations, while emphasizing the importance of free speech in general. Mr. La Rue expressed his “full support” for the outcome document of April’s Durban Review Conference, pointing to a paragraph that stresses the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as to the document’s support for legal prohibitions on the dissemination of ideas based on racial discrimination and incitement to national, racial, or religious hatred. He said that measures need to be taken against hate speech, but the obligation of states to protect freedom of opinion and expression should also be strengthened. In addition, Mr. La Rue discussed obstacles that prevent free speech in situations of extreme poverty.

Egypt for the African Group spoke out forcefully against Mr. La Rue, asking that his future reports “strictly abide” by his mandate. It complained about the report’s “unjustifiable emphasis on the relationship between freedom of expression and situations of extreme poverty.”

Pakistan for the Islamic Group stressed that freedom of expression is “not absolute” and complained that Mr. La Rue’s report focused on the “promotion of this right, not on abuses of this right.” It said there is a “need to differentiate between freedom of expression and freedom to insult or stigmatize” and warned Mr. La Rue that the Islamic Group “will take proper action in the case of any future deviation from the mandate.”

The Czech Republic speaking for the European Union said it is a strong supporter of the independence of special procedures mandate holders (like Mr. La Rue). It claimed these experts should all have flexibility to decide how to implement their mandates within its terms.

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