The UN Human Rights Council unanimously adopted a new resolution on the elimination of forms of discrimination and violence based on religious beliefs, but one that freedom watchdogs say marks a significant step away from the highly criticised "defamation of religions" concept. Unlike previous resolutions which focused on curtailing the defamation of religions, the current one seeks to balance religious rights with the right to free speech. The inter-governmental body adopted the "Resolution on Combating Intolerance and Violence against Persons Based on Religion or Belief," calling upon U.N. member states to adopt measures and policies to promote the full respect and protection for places of worship and religious sites, and to take measures in cases where they are vulnerable to vandalism or destruction. The 47-member body also called for strengthened international efforts to foster a global dialogue for the promotion of a culture of tolerance and peace at all levels, based on respect for human rights and diversity of religions and beliefs. It did not, however, speak out against the "defamation of religions", which the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has been lobbying the United Nations to make a human rights violation since 1999. The OIC nevertheless gave its acceptance of the new resolution as "a goodwill gesture by the organization" in order to reach the necessary consensus, bridge the gap, and partner with the West in addressing the anti-Islam sentiments that prevailed in some Western communities toward Muslims. The new resolution came after the OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu last year made a number of proposals on the possibility of reaching a common ground toward a solid platform for its adoption. The OIC, which represents the Islamic group at the council, participated in the 24 March discussion. The United States and the European Union too were represented. According to informed sources, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had invited the OIC to lead, along with both Washington and the European Union, the efforts to draft a new resolution to ensure the foundations adopted by the previous resolution, giving a wider margin of freedom of expression. In a separate statement Thursday, Hillary Clinton voiced her support to the new resolution: "The United States strongly supports today's resolution, which rejects the broad prohibitions on speech called for in the former 'defamation of religions' resolution, and supports approaches that do not limit freedom of expression or infringe on the freedom of religion." At the same time, the OIC made it clear that it not abandoned its earlier advocacy for a resolution against the defamation of religions. The non-defamation priciple that the OIC seeks is the most contentious of the resolutions, because in countries with strong protections on speech and other forms of expression, the idea that a religion can have the same defamation protections as living individuals is considered an affront to individual rights. Critics of the non-defamation principle argue that support for such a concept would be dangerous as it would legitimize national blasphemy laws used by countries such as Pakistan to silence Christians and other religious minorities, as well as Muslims who do not conform to the government's ideas. "The defamation concept undermines individual rights to freedom of religion and expression; exacerbates religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence; and provides international support for domestic blasphemy laws that often have led to gross human rights abuses," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted Thursday. With the new resolution adopted, religious freedom advocates say the next step is for countries that have blasphemy laws to eliminate them. "Today's adoption of this resolution by the UN Human Rights Council is an important statement that must be followed by sustained commitment," remarked Clinton. USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo added, "USCIRF is gratified that this new resolution recognizes that religious intolerance is best fought through efforts to encourage respect for every individual's human rights, not through national or international anti- blasphemy laws." Informed sources in the OIC General Secretariat said that the new resolution is related to combating religious intolerance and negative stereotypes, stigmatization, discrimination, and incitement to violence, and violence against individuals based on religion and belief. They stress that it is not a substitute for an earlier resolution adopted by the UN on combating defamation of religions, which the Human Rights Council had adopted many times in the past several years, but not with unanymity.
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