U.S., Europeans: Islamic countries want to limit free speech at UN

Geneva, Switzerland - The United States, Canada and some European countries said Tuesday that Islamic nations were trying to limit freedom of speech at the UN by trying to make an independent rights expert scrutinize individuals instead of dictatorial regimes.

The amendment passed by the UN Human Rights Council in its rush to adjourn Friday told its expert on freedom of expression to report on people who abuse their free speech rights to espouse racial and religious discrimination.

The measure, proposed by Egypt and Pakistan, passed 32-0 with the support of Islamic, Arab and African nations. European nations and some other countries abstained.

"The resolution adopted attempts to legitimize the criminalization of expression," said Warren W. Tichenor, U.S. ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

The document seeks to impose "restrictions on individuals rather than to emphasize the duty and responsibility of governments to guarantee, uphold, promote and protect human rights," he told the council.

The United States is not a member of the council but has rights to speak as an observer.

The expert should "report instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination," according to the measure.

Ambeyi Ligabo, a legal expert from Kenya, currently holds the post.

Slovenia's ambassador Andrej Logar, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said "the focus of the mandate is shifting from protection of freedom of expression to limitation thereto."

Terry Cormier, a member of the Canadian delegation, said the resolution "turns the special rapporteur's mandate on its head."

"The job of a special rapporteur is not to police the action of individuals. It is to monitor and support the compliance of states with their international human rights obligations," he told the council.

The 47-nation council is dominated by Arab and other Muslim countries.

Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan, who was speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, denied that the resolution would limit free speech.

It only tries to make freedom of expression responsible, he said.

Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry said there was a growing trend to erode human rights law, permitting "some of the worst practices that incite racial and religious hatred."

Islamic groups have been demanding limits on free speech since a Danish magazine published caricatures of Muhammad, provoking riots across the Islamic world in 2006.

Ligabo told the Associated Press in an interview last month that he was against any groups of individuals inciting hatred based on religious belief.

But, he said: "We advocate the rights of individuals, not of a particular belief or ideology."

Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders condemned the amendment.

"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," it said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the resolution turns the expert's mandate into a policing function over individual freedom of expression and questioned the very basis of media freedom and independence.