Eye on the UN
For Immediate Release:
October 5, 2009
Contact: Anne Bayefsky
You Can't Say That:
At the UN, the Obama administration backs limits on free speech.
This article, by Anne Bayefsky, originally appeared in The Weekly Standard.
The Obama administration has marked its first foray into the UN human rights
establishment by backing calls for limits on freedom of expression. The
newly-minted American policy was rolled out at the latest session of the UN
Human Rights Council, which ended in Geneva on Friday. American diplomats
were there for the first time as full Council members and intent on making
President Obama chose to join the Council despite the fact that the
Organization of the Islamic Conference holds the balance of power and human
rights abusers are among its lead actors, including China, Cuba, and Saudi
Arabia. Islamic states quickly interpreted the president's penchant for
"engagement" as meaning fundamental rights were now up for grabs. Few would
have predicted, however, that the shift would begin with America's most
For more than a decade, a UN resolution on the freedom of expression was
shepherded through the Council, and the now defunct Commission on Human
Rights which it replaced, by Canada. Over the years, Canada tried mightily
to garner consensus on certain minimum standards, but the "reformed" Council
changed the distribution of seats on the UN's lead human rights body. In
2008, against the backdrop of the publication of images of Mohammed in a
Danish newspaper, Cuba and various Islamic countries destroyed the consensus
and rammed through an amendment which introduced a limit on any speech they
claimed was an "abuse . . . [that] constitutes an act of racial or religious
The Obama administration decided that a revamped freedom of expression
resolution, extracted from Canadian hands, would be an ideal emblem for its
new engagement policy. So it cosponsored a resolution on the subject with
none other than Egypt--a country characterized by an absence of freedom of
Privately, other Western governments were taken aback and watched the weeks
of negotiations with dismay as it became clear that American negotiators
wanted consensus at all costs. In introducing the resolution on Thursday,
October 1--adopted by consensus the following day--the ranking U.S.
diplomat, Chargé d'Affaires Douglas Griffiths, crowed:
"The United States is very pleased to present this joint project with Egypt.
This initiative is a manifestation of the Obama administration's commitment
to multilateral engagement throughout the United Nations and of our genuine
desire to seek and build cooperation based upon mutual interest and mutual
respect in pursuit of our shared common principles of tolerance and the
dignity of all human beings."
His Egyptian counterpart, Ambassador Hisham Badr, was equally pleased--for
all the wrong reasons. He praised the development by telling the Council
that "freedom of expression . . . has been sometimes misused," insisting on
limits consistent with the "true nature of this right" and demanding that
the "the media must . . . conduct . . . itself in a professional and ethical
The new resolution, championed by the Obama administration, has a number of
disturbing elements. It emphasizes that "the exercise of the right to
freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities .
. ." which include taking action against anything meeting the description of
"negative racial and religious stereotyping." It also purports to "recognize
. . . the moral and social responsibilities of the media" and supports "the
media's elaboration of voluntary codes of professional ethical conduct" in
relation to "combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related
Pakistan's Ambassador Zamir Akram, speaking on behalf of the Organization of
the Islamic Conference, made it clear that they understand the resolution
and its protection against religious stereotyping as allowing free speech to
be trumped by anything that defames or negatively stereotypes religion. The
idea of protecting the human rights "of religions" instead of individuals is
a favorite of those countries that do not protect free speech and which use
religion--as defined by government--to curtail it.
Even the normally feeble European Union tried to salvage the American
capitulation by expressing the hope that the resolution might be read a
different way. Speaking on behalf of the EU following the resolution's
adoption, French Ambassador Jean-Baptiste Mattéi declared that "human rights
law does not, and should not, protect religions or belief systems, hence the
language on stereotyping only applies to stereotyping of individuals . . .
and not of ideologies, religions or abstract values. The EU rejects the
concept of defamation of religions." The EU also distanced itself from the
American compromise on the media, declaring that "the notion of a moral and
social responsibility of the media" goes "well beyond" existing
international law and "the EU cannot subscribe to this concept in such
In 1992 when the United States ratified the main international law treaty
which addresses freedom of expression, the government carefully attached
reservations to ensure that the treaty could not "restrict the right of free
speech and association protected by the Constitution and laws of the United
The Obama administration's debut at the Human Rights Council laid bare its
very different priorities. Threatening freedom of expression is a price for
engagement with the Islamic world that it is evidently prepared to pay.
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