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Geneva: Withdrawal by States from Durban Review Major Setback for Freedom of Expression

April 22, 2009

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - The following is a 20 April 2009 press release by ARTICLE 19 and CIHRS:

Geneva: Withdrawal by States from Durban Review Major Setback for Freedom of Expression

ARTICLE 19 and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) are extremely concerned by the recent decision of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands to withdraw from the UN anti-racism conference, otherwise known as the Durban Review. The two organisations call on all other states, particularly European states, not to follow this example and to stand firm for the protection of the rights to equality and to freedom of expression.

These decisions to withdraw could result in other EU states following suit, thus undermining the Review's Outcome Document which in its draft form contains some of the most significant positive developments for Freedom of Expression in recent times. Months of negotiation have resulted in a draft Outcome Document that reaffirms the essential role of freedom of expression and freedom of information while omitting any reference to "defamation of religions", a concept rejected by free speech activists because it protects belief systems against criticisms or jokes and is incompatible with international human rights law. The Document's current language acknowledges the primacy of the individual as rights holder rather than religion.

According to Mr. Moataz El Fegiery, Executive Director of CIHRS, "The replacement of 'defamation of religion' with language protecting an individual's freedom of belief represents a significant acknowledgment by the international community that international law does not recognise this concept; and that it should not be used by the United Nations."

Dr. Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director, states that "For almost ten years now, free speech activists have advocated against the 'defamation of religion' resolutions at the Human Rights Council. Western states have consistently worked against these resolutions as well, but failed to positively influence the vote or the wording. But we could finally turn a page. After weeks of intense negotiations, a new language has finally been found which will protect individual believers and not belief systems. Failure of the Durban Review and rejection of its current outcome document will erase this accomplishment. It is very uncertain we will ever get another chance like this."

"The whole sale rejection of the current Durban Review text by the states that have withdrawn, despite the major positive gains that have been made, will only strengthen and encourage states who exploit political division to weaken the international human rights system, including freedom of expression," concludes Mr. El Fegiery.

ARTICLE 19 and CIHRS strongly urge all states to constructively engage in good faith in the Durban Review process and refrain from allowing political maneuvering to undermine the significant improvements that have been made, including in the area of Freedom of Expression.

Updates alert about participation at Durban Review:

For more information contact:
Phone: +44 20 7278 9292

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