Nora Connor:  Water cooler talk around The Revealer offices keeps circling back to human rights these days (yes, we are a rock-and-roll lot). As in, what are they? Who gets to say what they are, and when and where? Are they “real” in themselves, out there in reality somewhere, waiting their turn to step forward, or are they a bit more ephemeral?  And why does human rights language often leave us confused?

A November 15th press release from the New York- and D.C.-based NGO Human Rights First neatly illustrates some of these conundrums while flagging a concrete change in legal human rights discourse. A resolution on combating religious intolerance was adopted by a U.N. committee without previously-favored language emphasizing that states are obligated to adopt and enforce laws against the defamation of religions. Human Rights First appears to have been leading the fight against codifying this requirement. They argue that to extend the approval of international legal systems to “defamation of religion” laws would entrench and give cover to repressive uses of defamation or blasphemy laws in domestic or local settings. This, the logic goes, would actually have the unintended effect of weakening human rights on the ground.

A Human Rights First report, “Blasphemy Laws Exposed,” documents the abuse of such laws in over twenty countries, mostly in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. And the nearly ten-year lobbying war at the U.N. over “defamation of religion” language has mostly been covered in the U.S. by politically right-wing news organizations such as Fox News and the Washington Times, because advocacy for it was led by a coalition of self-identified Islamic countries. But as Austin Dacey at Religion Dispatches noted in August, the enshrining of specifically religious anti-defamation or anti-blasphemy laws is a problem in a variety of locales. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, recently upheld Austrian, British and Turkish laws against blasphemy or religious insult by referring to an apparently unique “right to respect for the religious feelings of believers.” Aside from the difficulty that legislated “respect for feelings” could be impractically difficult if not impossible to enforce, Dacey points out that this formation is inherently discriminatory, since it doesn’t afford the same protection or avenue of process to the “feelings” of atheists or agnostics.

The U.N. committee resolution may (is likely to?) be adopted by the General Assembly next month. It’s sometimes hard to follow, let alone take seriously, the language of U.N. proposals, committees and resolutions, drafted as they are in bland technocratic-legalese, and knowing as we do that the aspirations reflected in the international dialogue about “human rights” often don’t seem to have any bearing on specific events happening in specific places around the world. It’s worth remembering, though, that laws provide a set of options and instruments that can be acted on and contested—always in connection with specific conditions of power relations, imbalances and motivations. Whether local, national or international in origin, “the law” really exists only on paper until it’s put into play. Maybe in this case, then, the U.N. would do best to stick with vague language about “tolerance,” “dialogue,” and “religious freedom,” deferring a substantive statement about the place of religion in the public sphere—perhaps permanently.