U.N. Free Speech Expert Resists Islamic States’ Call for Censorship

The debate on free speech from yesterday continued today at the U.N. Human Rights Council. The controversy stems from the report by U.N. expert on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Mr. Franck La Rue Lewy, which emphasizes the importance of free speech while advocating minimal restrictions on incitement to hatred, which he said does not include “defamation of religions.” Last year, the Council majority had succeeded in changing the terms of Mr. La Rue’s mandate: Instead of reporting on problematic speech restrictions, Mr. La Rue is now tasked with investigating “abuses” of speech. (According to the Islamic Group, this means speech critical of religions which it says should be criminalized.)

Complaints against Mr. La Rue for purportedly failing to adequately abide by the terms of his mandate were made by a number of Islamic States, including Indonesia, Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan. Algeria said it was “intrigued by the unpreecendented action of reinterpretation of the mandate,” saying it is “outside the code of conduct” for Mr. La Rue to ask the Council not to adopt resolutions on “defamation of religions.” It complained, “We fear that, acting in this view, the Special Rapporteur [Mr. La Rue] did not contribute to promoting the spirit of tolerance.”

Sri Lanka also sided with the Islamic states, appearing to repay these allies who shielded it from scrutiny during the recent special session to address violations in its country. Sri Lanka also seized the opportunity to lash out at the U.N. Special Procedures mandate holders in general, who had criticized its actions during the spesical session, saying, “Several rapporteurs have come together a if their weight had more impact than the issues they were tasked to investigate.” It urged all rapporteurs to be careful not to lend themselves to “other agendas.”

In addition, Venezuela spoke out against Mr. La Rue, fiercly denying his allegations about speech violations in its country. Venezuela argued, “there is no censorship and no journalists have suffered” in its country. It said it regrets Mr. La Rue has “come out negatively against us on the basis of biased media information.”

On the other hand various Western countries (Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) voiced their support for Mr. La Rue’s work and the independence of U.N. Special Rapporteurs in general. The Netherlands said it “regrets this tendency” of attacks on independent experts, like Mr. La Rue, and that it “fails to see how Mr. La Rue contravened the code of conduct by giving priority to certain elements of his mandate.”

The UK also asked that Mr. La Rue focus on the restrictions of free expression in Iran, where activists collecting signatures for a women’s rights movement were arrested.

Chile, Peru, and Brazil stressed the importance of freedom of expression. Brazil said, “Whenever there is a conflict between freedom and restriction, freedom must prevail.”

Responding to the remarks against him, Mr. La Rue said, “I’m not going to depart from the mandate or legal instruments that gave rise to it.” He claimed he is focusing on the limitations of freedom of expression to prevent “incitement to hatred,” but these “abuses and excesses” need not be defined too broadly. “Limitation on the excersize of the right should be the exception and not the rule,” he said.

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