Does Combatting the Defamation of Religion protect human rights?

From my post at the BIC Interns Blog:

A few days ago the UN General Assembly Third Committee passed a resolution on Combatting the Defamation of Religions. The proponents of this resolution argue that there is a need to protect religious minorities from stereotyping and to prevent messages of religious hatred from being disseminated. I agree that there is such a need. However, upon further consideration, and certainly after attending a panel discussion on this topic a couple of weeks ago, I have become convinced that focusing on combatting the defamation of religion will not achieve this aim, but rather create multiple problems of its own.

On the normative level, such a move is very dangerous, because it obscures the fundamental concept of human rights. This resolution associates the protection of religions with the protection of individual human rights. Making the leap of giving human rights to religions is inconsistent with the principle of human rights and international law in general. Individuals have human rights because they are human. Thus, a legal system with human rights at its core would seek to protect the individual from abuse by government, other individuals, and more impersonal forces like the market. Seeking to extend the same protection to beliefs, ideas, and practices, will in the end do individuals a great disfavour, irrespective of their religion or beliefs.

In practice there are two immediate problems that arise when seeking to apply the concept of rights to religions. The first is the conflict of interest that may arise when the rights of an individual are in conflict with those of a religion. The resolution implicitly opens the door for restricting individual rights (particularly the right to freedom of expression) in the name of religion. Among other things, the resolution explicitly condemns the use of various media to incite violence and xenophobia, or “discrimination against any religion” or religious symbol.

Clearly, I am not in favour of incitement to violence and xenophobia either, and am glad that most countries already have laws that impose reasonable restrictions on free speech in these areas (though they could be better enforced). But focusing on religions (as opposed to individuals with diverse beliefs) primarily serves to muddle the issue. For what is a religion? And what constitutes discrimination against a religion?

This brings me to the second problem, which is that this resolution implicitly makes the government the official watchdog of religion. Governments would be tasked with defining (a) which sets of beliefs constitute 'valid' religions, (b) which of the hetrogeneous beliefs held by the followers of a religion constitute the 'pure' and inviolable core of that religion, and (c) what constitutes defamation of this sacred core.

It is easy to perceive that the scope for misuse by undemocratic governments is large. It would justify the suppression of free speech on the grounds that religious principles are being defamed. It would permit restrictions on religious minorities, should their beliefs be deemed defamatory to other religions by the government. Suppression of the rights of women in the name of religious tradition would become justifiable under international law. It is a true pandora's box of human rights violations, as in the extreme sense, the existence of one religion can be construed as the defamation of another.

What, then, ought to be done? The issue is really one of adequately enforcing existing legislation that protect individuals, especially religious minorities, against defamation and incitements to violence, and to make sure that they can freely practice their religion. Such measures would reap the benefits intended by the Defamation of Religion resolution, but avoid the pitfalls.

A second course of action is for each individual to excercise the right (and responsibility) that comes from having freedom to speak our opinion. Indeed, more free speech is the best way to counter defamatory and ignorant speech. When confronted with bigoted and malicious opinions, we should speak, blog, write to the newspapers, go on radio, and so forth, and set them right.

Courageous Princes in Denmark?

Today is Blog Action Day, and the focus this year is climate change. So I thought I'd participate by posting a few of my own thoughts about where the issue stands. As I have been attending discussions and blogging about climate change over the past few weeks, I have thought about the scientific, political, and economic aspects of climate change. And then I was struck by an idea that perfectly captured how I felt about the ongoing climate change negotiations.

Since I was young, I have loved to read about heroes, fictional and real, who had the problems of the world thrust upon them through no fault of their own. And they were human, they made mistakes, they doubted, they were afraid. But one thing united them all: they arose for the sake of others and faced their fears; they had courage.

Today the world is facing climate change, a calamity of unprecedented and unpredictable proportions, a calamity that will submerge countries (first in line are small island states and Bangladesh), lay lands barren through droughts and floods, and cause violent and unpredictable spells of extreme weather.(1) It is the stuff stories are made of, set on a beautiful blue pearl of a planet speeding through endless space, faced by imminent catastrophe, with so much potential, so much to save, and so little time. A potential best-seller if I ever saw one. And there are heroes: Farmers doing their best to feed their families despite the droughts(2), activists who dedicate their lives to protecting the environment and raising awareness(3), scientists researching the issue(4), and millions of people making changes in their every-day lives.

I do not wish to belittle their efforts in any way, but I am afraid it will not be enough. For where, I ask, where are the leaders with whom we have entrusted the responsibility to, as their titles signify, to lead humanity through his challenge? Where are the valiant princes and noble rulers of the earth? So I remain dissatisfied... I was never very fond of tragedies, and this has the potential to be a truly memorable, indeed unforgettable, one. One that will rival the finest Shakespearean tragedy, and make Hamlet and Macbeth seem cheerful by comparison.

However, I am yet hopeful that we may turn out to be in an epic drama, not a tragedy, of global proportions. I am hoping to see, out of the corner of my eye, the knights in shining armour come charging in on the international political arena, full of energy and courage, ready to act. We have talked for two decades about climate change. Now is the time to courageously step forward and bravely propose, commit, enact, and make the green future a reality.

Courage is the true characteristic of any heroic leader, and that is what the story sorely lacks to date. Heroes who have the courage to face the press and the polls, the campaign-funders and each other, and who do not fear going down the green road before anyone else does. Where is this courage to do what science, humanity, and ultimately, our deepest moral convictions tell us is the only responsible course of action? This courage must be born from the heartfelt conviction that humanity shares one common fate, and that we are all connected.(5) Most leaders will not lose their homes and livelihoods from global warming, but they must act for the sake of those who will.

Will world leaders come to the the Copenhagen Climate Conference, armed with love for justice and the knowledge of the oneness of humankind, and establish an international climate regime that is fair, ambitious, and binding enough to secure our common future? Will they brave their fears and become the heroes of future generations? Or will they, like princes in Denmark before them, succumb to prevarication and inaction, bringing us one step closer to global tragedy?

(This blog has also been posted at the Interns@BIC Blog, and is reposted here with some minor changes.)

Blogging at the BIC Intern Blog

This fall I'm doing an internship with the Baha'i International Community, where I will be doing a few different things. One of the things I'll be doing is writing for their Intern Blog. Some of these posts I'll also cross-post here.

The Baha'i International Community (BIC) is an international non-governmental organization that cooperates with the United Nations, international organizations, and other NGOs. The aim of the BIC is to promote and apply the principles of the Baha'i Faith to "contribute to the resolution of current day challenges facing humanity and the development of a united, peaceful, just, and sustainable civilization." Among other things they have an excellent and very interesting collection of statements.

Being at the BIC and at the UN (mostly the Third Committee of the General Assembly) I get to see and hear first-hand some interesting talks, presentations, and statements, and I hope to share some of this on the blog.

Of Manners and Morals

Yesterday I came across a reference to Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. I was intrigued – what is excruciatingly correct behavior like? Is it really so excruciating?

I was intrigued, but also expecting to be provoked, as I googled my way to some more examples of Miss Manners’ advise on etiquette and good manners. I expected to be provoked, because I firmly believe that the correct way in which to eat asparagus is of negligible importance in the grand scheme of things. Our morals, truthfulness, courage, and so on, can in no wise be compared to our ability to distinguish one fork from another.

However, I was very pleasantly surprised by Miss Manners, and I have learned to appreciate why manners are important, even beyond smoothing out the occasional awkwardness of social situations.

Comparing the relative virtue of morals and manners, as I have done, misses the fact that manners are not there to replace morals, they are there to make the most of them. Moral values, such as courage and honesty are universal – everyone may not have them in equal amounts, but everyone can appreciate them. Manners, on the other hand, pertain more to how we behave in a specific situation - do we hold open the door, or not - and rely on a shared understanding of what holding the door open actually means.*

(*To some, this means “you must have weak arms and be generally incapable of opening doors,” and to others, “I open the door for you because my own efforts are of little consequence compared to your comfort.”)

Manners make the most of our morals because they often provide the means through which we express them. If I were truly grateful for a gift from a friend, would it not be natural to write her a card to say how grateful I am? The generosity and deep appreciation of my own heart should dictate that I seek to share these emotions with her in a way she will understand. It is not about reciprocating tit for tat (which would require me to do something comparable for her), or upholding an empty social ritual, but about communicating my gratitude.

If I greatly respect someone, I may express this by giving them a seat at the head of the table, be quiet while they speak, and/or whichever small tokens she would understand. This is not about being stiff or sucking up, but rather to reinforce (or sometimes even replace) spoken language (“I respect you”) with another kind of language: actions. And what are manners but very small acts, acts that nevertheless speak loudly?

A second, equally crucial, but perhaps less obvious value of manners is that they may prevent us from inflicting our own shortcomings on others. It seems Miss Manners is forever asked questions of this sort, “What is the polite way to tell the guests that really all we want for our wedding is a lot of cash?” Her answer is, of course, that there is none. It is poor manners to expect gifts in the first place, and equally poor manners to tell people what to get you. Refraining from putting “Give us money, please” on your wedding invitation, because you don’t want people to think you’re rude, doesn’t mean you’re not greedy. But it does prevent you from inflicting it on your poor wedding guests.

Resurrecting Therese Tinkering

Over the past few months, there has been an increasingly insistent voice in the back of my mind, asking me to blog, blog, blog! This voice has been echoed by some of my friends, in very kind and encouraging ways.

I have therefore resolved that it is about time I get back to some serious Tinkering! Not too serious, I hope, but at least regular and enthusiastic tinkering. There are still a few technical quirks I need to sort out, so I ask your patience while I get all the links and menus working right.

Having taken a rather extended break from excessive tinkering, (and from thinking in general) has been very refreshing. However, the reason for taking a break is, in the end, to resume with new vigour and inspiration. I hope this will be the case.

Hopefully I will also find the time to share a few of my non-computer tinker-projects from the past year.