Freedom of expression is not a license to incite hatred and intolerance (2)by Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu*

Freedom of expression is not a license to incite hatred and intolerance (2)by Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu*

August 16, 2012, Thursday/ 16:34:00

Genuinely committed to the resolution of the divergence of views and determined to reach a common ground, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in that context sponsored a new resolution on “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence, and Violence against Persons Based on Religion and Belief.”

This Resolution (16/18) was adopted by consensus at the 16th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva in March 2011. This is no doubt a most welcome development.

The consensual adoption of HRC Resolution 16/18 vindicated once again the OIC’s demonstrated ability to address sensitive matters through meaningful and result-oriented discourse. It also strengthened the OIC’s credentials as a political organization resolved to accord primacy to multilateralism in seeking solutions to contemporary issues of vital concern characterized by divergent views.

Additionally, the adoption of this resolution is considered to constitute a major step forward in dealing with Islamophobia and the whole package of interrelated issues that continued to form a matter of vital concern not only for the OIC, but also for many responsible circles in the West.

Flexibility in consensus building

The unprecedented flexibility shown in this process of consensus building by the OIC is generally recognized by all concerned. However, this does not mark the end of the road. Rather, it signifies a beginning based on a new approach to deal with the whole set of interrelated issues. This marks an era of “post-defamation controversy” and opens the path for unified and concerted efforts to better define and implement the legal concept of “incitement to religious hatred.” The consensus, however, might remain fragile unless it stands the test of implementation.

Taking full advantage of the renewed dynamism, the OIC therefore proposed to host a High Level Meeting to build on the consensus in terms of the legal, political and human rights aspects with a view to ensuring implementation of the clauses of the resolution.

The purpose of this High Level Meeting, in addition to discussing concrete steps in implementing the newly adopted resolution, was also meant to achieve a twofold approach: First, to analyze existing mandates, their relevance and effectiveness, an essential question in that respect being the possibility of creating synergies among mechanisms and initiatives in the area of promoting tolerance and combating advocacy of religious hatred which constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. Secondly, to identify the remaining gaps both from an informational and normative point of view, for instance, by examining what can be done to enhance monitoring and classification of incidents of religious intolerance.

On the other hand, while upholding the fundamental right to freedom of expression, where to draw the contours of the exceptions constituting incitement to hatred and unduly tarnishing the reputation of others or disturbing public order and security -- as stipulated in Articles 19(3) and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) -- would also be evaluated at the proposed gathering.

In other words, it was necessary to evaluate how to better utilize the international legal instruments and the attendant mechanisms like the Treaty Bodies in providing updated and interpretative commentary towards identifying the interface between Articles 19(3) and 20 with a view to effectively preventing the recurrence of past divisive events, which are not only riddled with violations of human rights, but also pose a potent threat to international as well as regional peace, security and stability. Furthermore, how could national legislations be enhanced in a manner that better reflects the spirit of international law and guarantees the enforcement of international commitments in this regard? All of these vital questions that must be answered and promptly acted upon were to be tackled; the social, economic and political realities and complexities of our fast changing world were to be addressed.

The proposed High Level Meeting was held in İstanbul on July 15, 2011, under the co-chairmanship of myself and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The meeting was attended by many ministers from the East as well as from the West, together with the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa and leading representatives of other international organizations.

The participants called upon all relevant stakeholders throughout the world to take seriously the call for action set forth in the HRC resolution, which aims to contribute to strengthening the foundations of tolerance and respect for religious diversity as well as enhancing the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The participants also expressed their resolve to go beyond mere rhetoric and to reaffirm their commitment to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression by urging all states to take effective measures as set forth in the resolution, consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion or belief.

Working towards implementing the resolution

Mrs. Clinton and myself, as co-chairs of the High Level Meeting, expressed our resolve to work together with other interested parties on following up and implementing Resolution 16/18 and to conduct further events and activities to discuss and assess implementation of the resolution.

We also noted the encouragement shown by other participants to consider providing updates on steps taken at the international level on the implementation of Resolution 16/18, building also on related measures in other UN Resolutions adopted by consensus on the freedom of religion or belief and on the elimination of religious intolerance and discrimination.

The İstanbul Meeting, starting the so-called “İstanbul Process,” proved its worth, as the fundamental freedoms discussed belong to all peoples in all places, and they are certainly essential to democracy, as Mrs. Clinton aptly expressed in her statement.

Two further important developments that took place in December 2011 are worth underlining: First, the UN General Assembly also adopted an OIC sponsored resolution (Resolution A/66/167), based on HRC Resolution 16/18, constituting a step forward with regard to the commitment of the international community to combat intolerance and hatred based on religion or belief and the whole set of interrelated issues.

Secondly, the US authorities organized the first High Level Follow-up Meeting to the İstanbul Process, geared towards furthering the conclusions reached in İstanbul aimed at consensual implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18. The meeting, which had a high profile, was attended mainly by law enforcement experts from a number of countries, as well as from international organizations. The EU has volunteered to host the next meeting, which proves once again that the process is gaining momentum.

Implementing the HRC resolution in an innovative and concerted manner is an important challenge facing the international community. In fact, enhancing channels for dialogue to combat religious discrimination and to foster tolerant and equal societies is an evident prerequisite for multilateral diplomacy. Speaking about dialogue, we must differentiate between monologue, which is one-way communication, and dialogue, which is two-way or multi-directional communication.

In our contemporary environment, the value and utility of dialogue is not disputed. However, for any dialogue to be successful and to bear fruit, it must be based on mutual respect and understanding. On the other hand, I believe time has also come to move from dialogue to collaboration. By collaboration I mean initiatives in which people not only “talk to each other,” but also work together in a joint venture, which will be more effective and productive.

The deplorable attacks of 9/11 erected barriers by generating an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, favoring new currents of radicalism and precipitating the self-fulfilling prophecy of the “clash of civilizations.” However, the historical significance of the recently adopted HRC Resolution 16/18, and subsequent UN General Assembly resolution, is that they created a consensual international platform to address many important and delicate issues. Far from merely reaching “agreed language,” these resolutions are quite substantive and provide for a multi-pronged approach calling for various administrative, political and legislative actions to be taken at both national and international levels. This landmark development must be seen and utilized as an instrument to transform agreement into action. In this regard, the OIC is conscious of its responsibility to use all channels of constructive engagement with all stakeholders in proposing implementation measures aimed at building on progress already made in a rather fragmented manner.

Combating discrimination and advocacy to hatred must be recognized as a work in progress and as a continuous process. In our present global environment, human nature as well as developments related to conflicts, migration, multiculturalism, minority concerns and new technologies are all factors that continue to exacerbate the challenges posed by the need for ensuring social cohesion and promoting tolerance.

As we are sadly aware, discrimination is one of the most difficult human rights violations to prove and to counter. It is, therefore, important to ensure a constant flow of information and analyses of relevant incidents and trends aimed at monitoring and better defining discriminatory practices, and raising awareness with regard to the various forms and manifestations of social or institutional discriminatory practices. Indeed, while international law is evolutionary by nature, is it possible to widen its scope of application and adapt it to phenomenon we do not fully grasp in the absence of analyses based on facts or empirical evidence.

Establishing an international observatory

This observation leads me to revive the call for establishing an international observatory, under the umbrella of the UN Human Rights Council. It’s worth remembering that UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations Jorge Sampaio and UN Rapporteur on Combating Contemporary Forms of Racism Githu Muigai, as well as myself, supported this proposal on various occasions. The establishment of such an international observatory to monitor all acts and manifestations of intolerance, discrimination, racism and incitement to hatred and related violence will strengthen the upgrading of international early warning systems available and assist in the development of effective international monitoring mechanisms as a first step in addressing the important matters under discussion.

Based on such a comparative analysis of various mechanisms and possible synergies between them, and by refining understanding of discriminatory patterns and their broader adverse effects on world societies, remedying the shortcomings of national and international normative approaches can be undertaken in a new and constructive spirit.

Finally, let me stress my conviction that consensus building must be reinforced by building on the consensus. What we have achieved so far constitutes a step in that direction. It would be important to transcend debates over terminology and short-term gains, and to recognize that human dignity and the right to non-discrimination should be firmly anchored in the international human rights system. For that, we must all strive collectively to bring about a new era of understanding, respect, hope and above all, effective, concerted and coordinated action.


*Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu is secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).