It is individuals who have human rights, not religions

The United Nations Human Rights Council has urged countries to legislate against defamation of religion, and especially of Islam. While tolerance and respect should be shown to all beliefs, clamping "the dead hand of censorship on all critical inquiry, art, drama, literature, humour and comment that might offend someone somewhere on religious grounds" is going too far, argues Ian Harris.

People of faith will inevitably be offended when cherished beliefs and practices are criticised or satirised, and some will clamour for the law to protect them.

That is the tack taken by the Arab-African majority on the United Nations Human Rights Council, which in March carried a resolution aimed at giving legal protection to Muslim sensitivities.

Quite reasonably, the resolution calls for tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs.

But it goes on to urge countries to legislate against defamation of religion, and especially of Islam. That goes too far.

It would, in effect, undermine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Some Muslims have long been uneasy about the declaration, which they say fails to take into account the cultural and religious context of Islamic countries.

Iran has branded it a secular understanding of the Judaeo-Christian tradition (a huge compliment to that tradition, in my view), saying Muslims could not implement it without transgressing their faith's sharia law.

Accordingly, a gathering in 2000 of 56 Muslim states adopted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which proclaimed instead that people have freedom and the right to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic sharia.

Sharia is the body of law touching every aspect of a Muslim's life, built up over Islam's first 500 years.

Some countries, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have given it the force of state law, and there is agitation in other countries to follow their lead.

Much of sharia law covers family and financial situations.

Today, many Muslim women find it patriarchal and oppressive.

It is also noteworthy for prescribing beheading for murder and certain other crimes, chopping off a hand for theft, stoning adulterers, and executing anyone who abandons Islam for another faith.

The last of these is in direct challenge to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the right to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

Enter the UN Human Rights Council.

This is the body set up three years ago to replace the old Human Rights Commission, which had lost all credibility by including among its members blatant violators of human rights such as China, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.

So the UN dismantled it and tried again - New Zealand was seeking membership till the new National Government withdrew our candidacy in favour of the United States.

The March resolution is not a happy beginning.

It declares the defamation of religion to be a breach of human rights, and a serious affront to human dignity akin to racism.

It deplores the fact that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism, though the Muslim perpetrators of murderous outrages in New York, London, Bali, Mumbai, Jakarta and Iraq routinely claim to be acting in the name of their faith.

But no, implies the resolution, it is the media that are responsible for the unfortunate impression that the attacks have anything to do with Islam.

The resolution is way off-beam.

It is individuals who have human rights, not religions or beliefs.

To give the latter legal protection would severely curb the individual's right to freedom of expression - as already happens in some Muslim countries, where people of other faiths need to tread very carefully.

The step would lead to further attempts to clamp the dead hand of censorship on all critical inquiry, art, drama, literature, humour and comment that might offend someone somewhere on religious grounds.

That is not to defend those who gratuitously set out to insult a religion and its followers.

But in a civilised society the proper restraints lie in tolerance and good taste, not law.

And while most people possess those qualities, there will always be some who do not.

For them to exercise freedom irresponsibly is to abuse it; but for freedom's sake, that is a price worth paying.

On a positive note, about 200 Christian, Jewish, humanist and media groups pleaded with the Human Rights Council to reject the resolution.

So did the American Islamic Congress and the Muslim Council of Canada.

It was in vain: when Islamic and African countries vote together they can control the council's agenda.

Fortunately, the resolution is not binding on member states. New Zealand should not have a bar of it.

- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator