René Wadlow and David Littman are long-time, non-governmental observers at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its sub-commission.
In April 1996, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights extended, for a second period of three years, the mandate of Maurice Glélé-Ahanhanzo of Benin as a special rapporteur
to examine incidents of contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, any form of discrimination, inter alia, against Blacks, Arabs and Muslims, xenophobia, negrophobia, anti-Semitism and related intolerance, as well as governmental measures to overcome them, and to report on these matters on a yearly basis to the Commission.1
Glélé's 1997 report2 contains a four-page section on antisemitism that quotes extensively from a text submitted by Israel's permanent representative in Geneva, Yossef Lamdam, that in turn was based on an annual survey of antisemitism worldwide published by Tel Aviv University in collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress. In Glélé's report, a sub-heading titled "Islamist and Arab Anti-Semitism," draws from that report and reads:
The use of Christian and secular European anti-Semitic motifs in Muslim publications is on the rise, yet at the same time Muslim extremists are turning increasingly to their own religious sources, first and foremost the Qur'an, as a primary anti-Jewish source.3
This sentence was only noticed by Muslim representatives at the Human Rights Commission on its last day in session, April 18, 1997. Speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the representative of Indonesia, Agus Tarmidzi, referred to this passage and declared:
This amounts to the defamation of our religion "Islam" and blasphemy against its Holy book "Qur'an." We are infuriated that such a statement has been included in the report of the Special Rapporteur. The Commission on Human Rights cannot become a silent spectator to this defamation against one of the great religions of the world. We, therefore, call on the Commission to express censure for this defamatory statement against Islam and the Holy Qur'an and ask you, Mr. Chairman, to express this censure on behalf of the Commission.4
Other representatives of Muslim countries—Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria, and Bangladesh—then joined in the denunciation, demanding an immediate deletion. Though this step was opposed by Germany and Bulgaria, a Commission Decision5 was announced that evening by the chairman that
a) Decided, without a vote, to express its indignation and protest at the content of such an offensive reference to Islam and the Holy Qur'an;
b) Affirmed that this offensive reference should have been excluded from the report;
c) Requested the Chairman to ask the Special Rapporteur to take corrective action in response to the present decision.6
As a result of this decision and various consultations, a corrigendum was issued to the special rapporteur's study three months later that removed the "offensive reference."7
Despite this victory, the campaign against "blasphemy" still continued. For example, at a session of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), on July 22, the Indonesian representative—again speaking on behalf of the OIC—referred to the "outrageous reference to Islam and to the Qur'an," and requested that his ECOSOC statement be distributed as an official U.N. document at the Security Counsel and at the General Assembly. The representatives of eight Muslim states also intervened on this issue supporting the Indonesian request; some of them demanded that the offensive sub-heading ("Islamist and Arab anti-Semitism") also be removed from the Glélé report.8 A final decision on this matter awaits the Commission on Human Rights' next session in March 1998.
Much of the work at the commission, as well its sub-commission, is based on precedent; once something has been accepted, it serves as an example to be cited when a similar situation turns up.9 The OIC precedent—unless strongly opposed within the United Nations—could lead to auto-censorship by special rapporteurs out of fear of a "blasphemy" charge. Only the persistence of antisemitism in the West and "Christian and secular European anti-Semitism motifs in Muslim publications" would then be mentioned in reports on racism.10
1 Resolution 1996/21 of Apr. 19, 1996, in E/CN.4/1996/177, p. 90, para. 9.
2 E./CN, 4/1997/71.
3 Dina Porat, et al. eds., Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1995/6 (Tel Aviv: Anti-Defamation League and World Jewish Congress, 1996), p. 4; also E/CN.4/1997/71, E-3, chapter II, para. 27.
4 Verbatim excerpt: E/CN.4/1997/S.R. 68, para. 14 has a summarized version.
6 E/CN.4/1997/SR.70 and E/CN.4/1997/150, pp. 283-84.
7 E/CN.4/1997/71/Corr.1, July 8, 1997.
9 B.G. Ramcharan, The Concept and Present Status of the International Protection of Human Rights (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1989).
10 For a more detailed account of this incident, see the authors' article in Justice (Tel Aviv), no. 14, Sept. 1997, pp. 10-17.