Friday, October 23, 2009

Rep. Franks Calls on UN to Uphold Religious Freedom

Franks Calls on UN to Uphold Religious Freedom at Congressional Hearing on "Defamation of Religions"

In Light of Upcoming Vote at the UN General Assembly: Franks Seeks Clarification on What the U.S. is Doing to Protect Fundamental Human Rights From Distortion by UN Member States

October 22, 2009 - Congressman Trent Franks (AZ-02) yesterday chaired a hearing on the "Defamation of Religions," held in the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress. Rep. Frank Wolf (VA-10), Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (LA-02), and Rep. Sue Myrick (NC-09) also participated in the hearing. Joseph Cassidy, Director of the Office of Multilateral andGlobal Affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department participated in this hearing, along with Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Angela Wu, international director ofThe Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; Tad Stahnke, director of Policy and Programs at Human Rights First; Zainab al-Suwaij, cofounder and president of the American Islamic Congress; and Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights of the American Jewish Committee.

With another resolution on the "defamation of religion" looming at the UN General Assembly in New York for another vote, meetings in Geneva this week over changes to include this concept in an international treaty, and a new position by the U.S. government in co-sponsoring a resolution on the "freedom of expression" with Egypt at the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month, Members of the TLHRC called a hearing. This hearing was intended to address how the freedom of speech, expression, and religion are being distorted by UN Member States who seek to protect religious institutions over the rights of individuals. Members also used this hearing to raise concern over the Obama Administration's new "relationship" with Egypt at the UN, which appears to have come at the expense of reinforcing the fundamental right to freedom of religion and expression. Zainab al-Suwaij stated it best when she ended her remarks by saying, "God does not need oppression dressed up in the form of human rights laws to defend Him." Angela Wu referred Members of Congress to existing laws that already deal with many of the concerns states supporting the undefined concept of "defamation of religions" have.

Congressman Franks is the co-sponsor of a bill (H.Res.763) offered by Rep. Ted Poe (TX-02) expressing the sense of Congress that these resolutions are incompatible with the fundamental freedoms of individuals to freely exercise and peacefully express their religious beliefs. The bill calls on the Secretary of State to make every effort to defeat the passage of these and other resolutions or international instruments that threaten the free and peaceful exchange of ideas, beliefs, and truth claims at the United Nations. Moreover, it calls on the UN to abandon efforts to adopt the flawed concept of "defamation of religions" and to instead focus on protecting fundamental human rights.

Following are his remarks as prepared.

Opening Statement for Rep. Trent Franks (AZ-02)

October 21, 2009, 11 AM

B-318 Rayburn

Welcome. I would like to begin by thanking Congressman Wolf and his staff for organizing this important and timely hearing. My office has been following the "defamation of religions" resolutions at the UN closely for the past few years and unfortunately throughout this period it has only gained momentum which I find extremely troubling.

As you will likely hear from our panelists today, the concept of "defamation of religions" was first introduced to the UNCommission on Human Rights in 1999 by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference under the title "defamation of Islam." They intended to address intolerance toward Muslims and what OIC countries perceived was a "campaign" to "defame" the Islamic religion, and more recently, to associate Islam with human rights violations and terrorism.

Since the beginning, however, these resolutions have been opposed by many in the West who believe these resolutions protect religious institutions rather than individual rights, which are the cornerstone of human freedom, for serving to protect national anti-blasphemy laws, and for setting an international precedent for this as well, while also weakening protections for vulnerable religious minorities and those who dissent from the state religion.

The impetus for these resolutions were, however, reinvigorated after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, during which time a report to the Commission on Human Rights by Doudou Diene claimed that there was an increase in intolerance against Muslims. The OIC continues to argue that this co-called "campaign" of defamation against Islam is no different than the anti-Semitic violence of the past. For this reason, they want all states to criminalize defamation through the adoption of a new international standard which limits any expression that the OIC deems offensive toward their religious beliefs. I'm not sure how this would work itself out in realty except by stifling all speech since every religion has competing ideas about truth and someone will always be offended when their views are rejected.

It is rather unfortunate that the Algerian government is now taking the lead in drafting an optional protocol to the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) that would make the yet undefined "defamation of religions" concept a legally binding norm, and that Mr. Diene is working with them to accomplish this. If successful, this would be the first time that this concept has entered into an international treaty and it would set a dangerous precedent for international legal protections on freedom of expression and religion in the future. I am particularly concerned with how this would affect thefirst amendment rights of all Americans.

I am a staunch defender of religious freedom for people of all faiths and believe that this freedom is foundational to all other freedoms. Sadly, though, these resolutions are not about protecting the religious freedom rights of individuals of all faiths, or even those of the Muslim faith. If that were the case, these countries would equally raise concern with textbooks in Saudi Arabia that call for Jews and Christians to be killed, other depictions dehumanizing Jews throughout the Middle East, and in laws calling for the death of apostates such as the Ahmadiyas in Pakistan and Baha'is in Iran, among many other attacks on non-Muslims in their countries.

Instead, these resolutions are clearly about controlling the beliefs and speech or other expressions of all religious minorities and dissenters to the state's religious institutions. For instance, the resolutions fail to distinguish between incitement to religious hatred which may be limited under Article 20(2) of the ICCPR, in order to prevent another genocide such as occurred during the Holocaust and in Rwanda, and valid criticism of human rights abuses carried out in the name of religion or other expressions found offensive but which do not intend or lead to discrimination or violence. This distinction is critical. Because of the UN's failure to differentiate these, in June of 2008 the Human Rights Council banned any legitimate discussion of human rights violations carried out in the name of religion, namely under sharia law, when Egypt among other countries objected to the negative criticism of sharia law in the context of women's rights. Such limitations on these fundamental freedoms are wholly incompatible with international human rights and this issue must be addressed.

I know that the U.S. government has taken a strong position against these resolutions in the last few years, but I am concerned with the recent resolution we offered with Egypt at the Human Rights Council on freedom of expression. Given Egypt's notorious record on both the freedom of expression and freedom of religion, it is actually quite alarming that we would offer a resolution with them while overlooking serious human rights abuses of this freedom in their own country. For instance, Abdel Kareem remains imprisoned for blasphemy on his personal blog; a Muslim himself, his case clearly shows that Egypt is not on the same page as the United States when it comes to freedom of expression or religion. So I look forward to hearing testimony from the State Department to explain this development.

1 comment:

Ben said...

It is impossible to properly express my joy upon reading about the hearing, which appears to mirror two recent high level seminars on the subject.

Representative franks has done an outstanding job of outlining the issues which make defamation of religion resolutions critical to the preservation of our liberties.

Was a transcript of the hearing made, and if so, will it be published? I am eager to read the testimony.