GENEVA: The Human Rights Council is set to debate a contentious draft proposal on religious hatred in the wake of burning of the Holy Quran in Sweden, an initiative that has highlighted rifts in the UN body and challenged practices in human rights protection.

In a draft resolution presented by Pakistan on behalf of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the group described the burning of Holy Quran in Stockholm last month as “offensive, disrespectful and a clear act of provocation” that incites hatred and constitutes a human rights violation.

The draft — which condemned “recurring acts of public burning of the Holy Quran in some European and other countries” — has stoked opposition from Western diplomats who argue it aims to safeguard religious symbols rather than human rights.

“We don’t like the text,” one Western diplomat said of the draft, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday. “Human rights are supposed to be attached to individuals, not to religions.”

The OIC initiative also stokes tensions between Western states and the Islamic organisation at a time when the group has unprecedented clout in the council, the only body made up of governments to protect human rights worldwide.

Nineteen OIC countries are voting members of the 47-member council, and other states such as China have aligned with their draft resolution.

It remains to be seen whether Pakistan will succeed in rallying all OIC countries behind it. A Saudi-led effort to end a Yemen war crimes probe prevailed in 2021.

“If the resolution passes, as seems likely, it will strengthen the impression the council is flipping and the West is losing ground on key debates such as the boundary between free speech and hate speech, and whether religions have rights,” said Marc Limon, director of the Geneva-based Universal Rights Group.

“This could make the council explode in acrimony.”

The European Union has urged parties to reach a consensus on the issue. “Defamation of religions has been a difficult topic for decades within the UN,” an EU diplomat said in negotiations last week.

“The question where to draw the line between freedom of expression and incitement to hatred is indeed a very complicated one.”

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2023

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