GENEVA (AP) – Muslim and Western nations clashed at the United Nations on Tuesday after a measure backed by Islamic countries added monitoring religious prejudice to the duties of a U.N. free speech expert.
The U.N. investigator on freedom of opinion and expression is responsible for reporting on repressive governments’ restriction of free speech. The change sponsored by Egypt and Pakistan now requires him to also report acts of “racial or religious discrimination” that constitute “abuse of the right of freedom of expression.”
The change passed 32-0 by the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday was seen as a move against forms of expression that have offended Muslims, such as Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The U.S., Canada and some European countries said the measure could curtail freedom of expression and help dictatorial regimes block dissenting views.
“The resolution adopted attempts to legitimize the criminalization of expression,” U.S. Ambassador Warren W. Tichenor told the 47-nation Human Rights Council.
European countries, Canada and some other nations abstained from voting last week. The United States is not a member of the council but can speak as an observer.
Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan said on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference that the resolution would not limit free speech and simply attempted to require people to exercise their freedom of expression responsibly.
Egypt’s ambassador, Sameh Shoukry, said the right to freedom from religious discrimination and defamation was not being sufficiently protected, permitting “some of the worst practices that incite racial and religious hatred.”
Some Islamic groups began demanding limits on free speech after the caricatures of Muhammad provoked riots in 2006. Muslim countries also protested the recent release of an anti-Islamic film by a Dutch lawmaker as well as controversial comments by the pope about Islam.
The Human Rights Council has no enforcement powers, but is supposed to act as the world’s moral conscience.
It has been accused of spending excessive amounts of time focusing on Israel while giving a free pass to countries with poor records of observing human rights. The U.S. Senate voted in September to cut off U.S. funding for the council, accusing it of bias.
The council adopted a resolution last week urging countries to enact anti-defamation laws to protect Muslims.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders warned that the change in job description could shift Kenyan legal expert Ambeyi Ligabo’s role as an independent expert from protecting free speech toward limiting it.
“It turns someone who is supposed to defend freedom of opinion into a prosecutor whose job is to go after those who abuse this freedom,” the group said in a statement.