* Rights council approves resolution on tolerance
* West, free speech advocates hail change
By Robert Evans
GENEVA, March 24 (Reuters) - Islamic countries set aside
their 12-year campaign to have religions protected from
"defamation", allowing the U.N. Human Rights Council to approve
a plan to promote religious tolerance on Thursday.
Western countries and their Latin American allies, strong
opponents of the defamation concept, joined Muslim and African
states in backing without vote the new approach that switches
focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers.
Since 1998, the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic
Conference (OIC) had won majority approval in the council and at
the United Nations General Assembly for a series of resolutions
on "combating defamation of religion".
Critics said the concept ran against international law and
free speech, and left the way open for tough "blasphemy" laws
like those in Pakistan which have been invoked this year by the
killers of two moderate politicians in Pakistan.
They argued that it also allowed states where one religion
predominates to keep religious minorities under tight control or
even leave them open to forced conversion or oppression.
But Pakistan, which speaks for the OIC in the rights
council, had argued that such protection against defamation was
essential to defend Islam, and other religions, against
criticism that caused offence to ordinary believers.
Islamic countries pointed to the publication of cartoons
depicting the prophet Mohammed in Denmark in 2005, which sparked
anti-Western violence in the Middle East and Asia, as examples
of defamatory treatment of their faith that they wanted stopped.
However, support for the fiercely-contested resolutions --
which the OIC had been seeking to have transformed into official
U.N. human rights standards -- has declined in recent years.
The new three-page resolution, which emerged after
discussions between U.S. and Pakistani diplomats in recent
weeks, recognises that there is "intolerance, discrimination and
violence" aimed at believers in all regions of the world.
Omitting any reference to "defamation", it condemns any
advocacy of religious hatred that amounts to incitement to
hostility or violence against believers and calls on governments
to act to prevent it.
The U.S.-based Human Rights First campaign group said the
new resolution was "a huge achievement because...it focuses on
the protection of individuals rather than religions" and put the
divisive debates on defamation behind.
However, diplomats from Islamic countries have warned the
council that they could return to campaigning for an
international law against religious defamation if Western
countries are not seen as acting to protect believers.
(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)
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