Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Free speech?  ''Whatevs,'' says the United Nations

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon last week expressed concern about free speech because sometimes it can be ''used to provoke or humiliate''.

God forbid we allow lively debate to take place.

With the advent of this proposal the UN has nailed its colours to the mast — it is unmistakably an anti-freedom of expression organisation.

Australia decided last century to erase these heretical laws from our statute books.  We recognised they have no place in a society that values free speech and religious plurality.

Today, the only Commonwealth remnant is the Australian Maritime Safety Authority-enforced law that disallows the registration of blasphemous ship names.  That, too, should be repealed.

Throwing a person in prison for insulting someone is wrong.  Doubly so when the law can be used as a tool by governments and religious majorities to crackdown on minority groups.

Overwhelmingly, blasphemy laws have been used as an often-deadly weapon in long-running sectarian disputes.

Pakistan is the most obvious example.  Christians have been persecuted for decades under laws that allow the Muslim majority to attack the religious minority over allegations of defacing the Koran and insulting Muhammad.

Recently, a young Christian girl was accused of destroying the Koran.  She was accused of blasphemy and imprisoned for three weeks.  It has now been revealed that an Islamic cleric burned pages of a Koran himself and framed the girl for the crime.

The Catholic minister for minority affairs was assassinated last year after criticising the country's blasphemy laws.

And it's now countries like Pakistan that are pushing for blasphemy laws to be implemented around the globe.  Political leaders from Egypt and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference have also spoken out in favour of international blasphemy laws.

Momentum for these restrictions is being driven in the context of a worldwide backlash to a stupid but utterly amateur film criticising Islam.

Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has said in response:  ''We would go to the UN and OIC and get a law passed to stop anti-Islam activities, including blasphemy, forever.''

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had this staggering addition:  ''Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others starts.''

This revelation is extremely concerning.

Turkey's political power is potent — it currently heads the OIC.  This is alarming because it is voting blocs like the OIC that will use their influence in the UN to push for blasphemy laws and decide which expressions will be outlawed.

Imagine the kind of radical limits to freedom of expression that would satisfy Erdoğan.  It goes way beyond restrictions of expression and probes the beliefs and values of individuals.

The proposal is disturbing and irrational.  Such a reality would invite the UN to police the thoughts and feelings of seven billion.

The UN's push for the criminalisation of blasphemy perfectly exemplifies what an artefact the organisation has become.  It is a soapbox for extremists and bigots and its orthodoxy should be dismissed as such.

It's weird that Australia would want a seat at the table of such an illiberal organisation.  Yet Prime Minister Julia Gillard is in New York all this week arguing for just that — she wants Australia to occupy one of the non-permanent UN Security Council seats.

We should abandon the attempt.  The UN should be left to the extremists and bigots who want to crush freedom of speech through relics like blasphemy laws.

It is beyond salvation.

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