Editorial: Free speech is a human right too

07:42, Jun 02 2009

Despots and dictators are expected to come up with reasons to limit free speech. The United Nations isn't.

That is why it is abhorrent that the UN's top human rights body has approved a proposal urging countries to pass laws to protect religion from criticism. Its Human Rights Council voted to accept a resolution proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference calling for a global fight against "defamation of religions". It singles out Islam as a victim. "Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism", the resolution states.

It will have little practical impact in the West, because it will not be put into practice. However, it should not be ignored. Its critics which include a coalition of 186 secular, Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups rightly see it as an attempt to give legitimacy to the anti-blasphemy laws that theocratic Muslim regimes use to stifle dissent and persecute non-Muslims. It is born of the same philosophy that regarded it as appropriate to issue a fatwa in effect, a death sentence against author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, which was ruled to be blasphemy against Islam.

It also, as the coalition has pointed out, alters the very notion of human rights. Those rights are meant to protect individuals from harm. They are not meant to protect beliefs from critical inquiry. The resolution, if taken seriously, would damage freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion in any country that adopted it, and that is why protests against it should be loud and long. Too often the West has mumbled, shuffled and looked the other way when its core values are attacked. It needs to take the same pride in the principles that underpin its culture as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference does in its, and push them with the same vigour. Freedom of speech is worth fighting for, rather than surrendering to those more determined in their world view.

Not least, it is important because it works. In 1919, United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr observed, "the best test of the truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market ... we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe".

Nothing that has happened in the 90 years since has changed that. It is when dissent is quelled that societies get into serious trouble, not when diversity of thought is accepted.

Against that background, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has made the right call in withdrawing New Zealand's bid for a place on the Human Rights Council, freeing up a spot for the US. As Mr McCully observed when he announced the decision, "by any objective measure, membership of the council by the US is more likely to create positive changes more quickly than we could have hoped to achieve them".

Even for a country with the diplomatic heft of the US, that is a big task. The council's predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, dissolved because it had lost all credibility. The council is showing all the signs of going down the same shameful road.


The Dominion Post