(19 – 21 June 2013)
Dear guests and colleagues,
It is with great pleasure that I welcome you all to this 3rd Istanbul Process Meeting on the follow-up and Implementation of Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 on Combating Incitement to violence, and Intolerance based on religion or belief.
I am grateful to all participants for their attendance, and particularly the distinguished panelists for sharing their valuable time and expertise. I would also like to thank all the esteemed State representatives and high officials from the UN and other international organizations for their participation. Let me also convey profound gratitude towards the esteemed Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, for her keen interest and gracious presence amongst us.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Combating discrimination and intolerance forms a most daunting challenge of our times. It constitutes a matter of vital concern at the OIC. Over the past decade, the debate over religious intolerance and its relationship with freedom of expression received greater attention in both the media and political discourse. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the exposure and recognition accorded to the core issue, divergences in approach prevented the enactment of effective and concrete remedial measures at the international level. It was in this context that, highly committed to the matter and determined to reach common ground, the OIC came up with an alternative approach reflected in the Resolution 16/18 on “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination Incitement to Violence, and Violence Against Persons Based on Religion and Belief”.
The consensual passage of HRC resolution 16/18 in March 2011 has been widely acknowledged as a positive development. It demonstrated OIC’s ability to forge consensus on the most sensitive of issues in contemporary international relations. The resolution codified the eight points identified in my address to the 15th Session of the Human Rights Council in September 2010. These points constitute areas of action at the national and the international levels. I am gratified that they could form the basis of consensus. It afforded the opportunity to focus on the real issues away from the politicization and polarization of a decade.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We did not stop at mere passage of a resolution. The Istanbul Process initiated with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton to build further on the consensus building that went into resolution 16/18 must be carried forward. While the resolution forms a triumph of multilateralism, Istanbul Process must also be seen as a poster child of OIC-US-EU cooperation. Our meeting today is a part of this Process. I appreciate that this Process has come to be recognized as the way forward by all stakeholders. Its merit lies in acceptance as the least common denominator. This approach carries a lot of potential in terms of evolving an international consensus to deal with the matter while addressing genuine concerns of all parties. The real test, however, lies in implementation. The consensus would, otherwise, be fragile. The approach signified by the resolution 16/18 is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. We need to build on it.
To date, two expert meetings have already been held in the framework of the Istanbul Process in Washington D.C., in December 2011 and the Wilton Park event in London in December 2012. Each of these two experts meetings focused on specific action points contained in Resolution 16/18 with a view to assessing and promoting their implementation. Furthermore, both expert meetings offered significant contributions by first of all maintaining a live debate of ideas and keeping open channels of communications but also by compiling comprehensive reports, containing a set of recommendations and best practices from which all concerned parties can take stalk.
Distinguished panelists and participants,
This third meeting of “Istanbul Process”, being held before the Geneva based diplomatic community, is of no lesser significance. It has brought the Istanbul Process to where it essentially belongs – the home ground of governing resolution. With the Geneva based experts from Member States and the distinguished panelists and participants in our midst, this meeting is perfectly poised – over the next three days-to address three important points that lie at the heart of the resolution 16/18. This is an opportunity for frank and candid debate particularly on the grey areas characterized by divergence of views. The significance and utility of the Istanbul Process lies in affording a forum for structured and open debate. Such debate must not, however, be sterile. It must generate ideas that can continue to feed the process of building on the consensus.
Let me briefly comment on each of the three substantive sessions.
In the first Session later this afternoon, distinguished panelists would lend the benefit of their perspectives and expert opinion on the importance and urgency of speaking out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. International community’s commitment to condemn intolerance and incitement to hatred on religious grounds is surely the most basic and simple step to be taken in implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18. It is essential for such condemnation to be strong, categorical and unified encompassing all aspects of the issue. The key message that must be consistently repeated, and which our meeting should echo loud and clear, is simple. In a world of increasing interconnectivity and multiculturalism, fast flow of information and human migration, Intolerance and incitement are not admissible. They continue to pose a clear and present danger to peace, security and stability at the national, regional and global levels.
The approach signified by resolution 16/18 has indeed been helpful to that end. The Joint Statement issued by the OIC, Arab League, the African Union and the European Union in September 2012 – in response to the reprehensible release of the highly provocative film “innocence of Muslims” on the Internet – forms a case in point. The joint statement condemned a clear act of advocacy to religious hatred that constituted incitement to hostility and violence. It also emphasized the need to respect believers’ legitimate and objective sensitivities with regard to the sanctity of religious figures and symbols, and that, irrespectively of their religious background. It is, of course, regrettable that acts of provocation often lead to violent reactions, which must not be condoned. The international community stands to gain from a unified and even handed approach in this regard.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Second Session of the Meeting touches upon a most important element of Resolution 16/18. It is most significantly characterized by divergence of views on the adoption of measures to criminalize incitement to violence based on religion or belief. It needs to be appreciated that while there is clarity, at least in terms of the existing international law, on how to address advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. Progress with regard to concerted international action to that end, however, has been marred by extensive politicization and polarization of the issue.
Let me clearly state that this is a matter of vital concern for OIC. The alternative approach signified by the resolution 16/18 was intended to move beyond the politicization and polarization with regard to content or title of the erstwhile resolution in addressing the real issues on a consensual basis. The increasing trend of Islamophobia is indeed ominous in a globalized world. There has been an alarming increase in intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. It must be appreciated that there is mounting public pressure on OIC Member States to take concrete action. Alarming increase in Islamophobic incidents like the Utoya massacre in Norway, the burning of copies of Quran by the Florida Pastor and release the reprehensible trailer on You tube continue to hurt the religious sentiments of over 1.5 billion Muslims. The political leadership of OIC Member States has been calling for immediate remedial action. It was in this situation that OIC as a responsible International Organization constituted a panel of eminent lawyers and human rights practitioners to examine the issue from the international law perspective. The panel endorsed the 16/18 approach and the Istanbul Process as the avenues for engagement. It was agreed that there is no need to move towards an entirely new legal instrument. The provisions of existing instruments, including articles 19 and 20 of ICCPR, suffice in covering OIC’s concerns. It is the voids or gaps in interpretation, implementation and information that need to be plugged. There are differences that must be ironed out to develop a common understanding. Concerns of all parties must be understood and addressed in evolving a consensual solution. I believe according equal weight to the concerns on both sides could form a good point of departure. The Istanbul Process carries the necessary resilience in this regard. I am confident deliberations at this meeting will make an important contribution.
The Third substantive Session at this important meeting would focus on the need to recognize that the open, constructive and respectful debate of ideas, as well as interfaith and intercultural dialogue at the local, national and international levels can play a positive role in combating religious hatred, incitement and violence. This is a very important aspect of the larger discourse that requires careful consideration. I would like to emphasize here, at the outset, that religions are part of international heritage and have all along accommodated critical thinking as an important pillar of human evolution and progress. For instance in Islam, the concept ‘Ijtihad’ forms a dynamic tool of jurisprudence that accommodates dissent and critical thinking. It is duly reflected in the admissibility of the different interpretations. Such dynamism, I believe, is a precondition to the progressive development of all legal systems.
Let us now focus on the word respectful. An open and constructive debate of ideas is indeed useful. It must be upheld as a matter of freedom of opinion and expression. It, however, transforms into a case of incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence when the freedom is abused to denigrate symbols and personalities sacred to one or the other religion. It needs to be understood as a matter of identity. It needs to be acknowledged that people in some parts of the world tend to identify themselves more with a particular religion than elsewhere. It is, therefore, essential to draw a line between free speech and hate speech – Hence the importance of interfaith and intercultural dialogue. OIC was the first to call for such a dialogue in 1998. We have seen that the dialogue has continued for a considerable time without much to show for result. What we need is a movement beyond event based calls towards a serious, structured and result oriented dialogue. Similarly, we could benefit from an integrated approach with regard to international efforts geared towards combating intolerance, discrimination and incitement to hatred. The Istanbul Process, I believe can serve as an avenue for such an integrated approach drawing on and lending a concrete shape to the understandings reached elsewhere.
In a world faced with the menace of terrorism, incitement to hatred, discrimination, and violence, cannot and must not be ignored. We would, otherwise, be faced with the unaffordable risk of the agenda hijacked and set by radicals and non-state actors. We need to act to wrest the initiative away from the street to the table of meaningful and result oriented multilateral discourse. Events like this meeting are increasingly important. Our deliberations here must aim at squarely addressing interrelated issues with particular reference to the grey areas. We need to evolve approaches that can remove the gaps in interpretation, implementation or information on a consensual basis. I personally believe and propose that we may look into the prospect of developing soft law that could reflect the common understanding of international community on this important issue. It could be in the form of some principles, guidelines or a declaration. I would like to leave it for the collective wisdom and common understanding of the experts to enlighten us to that end. The Istanbul Process based on the shared objectives reflected in the consensual approach signified by the resolution 16/18 lends me with reason for optimism in this regard.
I thank you all and wish you success in the important deliberations over the next three days.