On December 10, 1948—63 years ago today—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted; 48 nations voted in favor, 8 abstained, and none dissented. The Declaration proclaimed a simple idea: that all human beings are born equal and free in dignity and rights. The Declaration also made it clear that rights are not conferred by governments. They are the birthright of every human being regardless of where they were born, what the color of their skin is, or what religion they practice. These rights include the right to freedom of expression and opinion, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Declaration.
Today, competition to work in the field of human rights is overwhelming—countless university graduates talk about their desire to protect and defend human rights. In the last year, people across the Arab world have raised their voices in protest against governments that have for too long denied them their basic rights as human beings. It appears that most people agree that everyone is born with equal rights; that rights do not only apply to certain groups of people.
However, in the West, where countries define themselves by their commitment to this idea of universal human rights, there is an Orwellian battle going on to redefine human rights. There is an attempt to win for certain groups rights that are not afforded to others. Here I want to speak about the fight for the so-called right not to be offended.
This October in Australia, Dr. Van Gend, a regular conservative commentator on social issues was forced to appear before Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination board because of comments he made in a public forum about same-sex parenting. In response to an invitation from the Courier Mail, Dr. Van Gend made his case against. He described the discrimination against same-sex parenting as a just and necessary alternative to the “far worse act of discrimination against children brought artificially into the world by such men, compelled to live their whole lives without a mother.” On September 28 2011, the month before Van Gend’s case, one of Australia’s well known columnists, Andrew Bolt, was prosecuted on charges of racism.
Bolt was found guilty for implying in two 2009 articles that fair-skinned Australian Aborigines chose to identify as indigenous for profit and career advancement. Federal court justice Mordy Bromberg ruled that fair-skinned Aborigines were likely to have been "offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations" included in columnist Andrew Bolt's two articles published by the Herald Sun. While Van Gend and Bolt’s comments may have been offensive, they should not have been punished for them.
In doing so, Australia has undermined the real human right of free speech in order to protect the phony right to be free from offense. Why isn’t the state punishing people who say offensive things about Christians? The obvious answer is because Christians, like Van Gend, do not make it into the State’s class of protected identity groups. This system undermines the very foundations of equality before the law. Some animals are more equal than others, as Orwell might have said. Some people are afforded special protections against offense and others are not.
The battle for this so-called right is not just happening in Australia, it is happening in some of the world’s oldest free societies including Britain and the Netherlands. In the U.K., a man was arrested in April 2011 for singing the 1970s hit tune “Kung Fu Fighting” at the Driftwood Beach Bar on the Isle of Wight because a Chinese passerby chanced to see the performance and reported him to the police on charges of racism.
Until April of this year, a charge was being led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) at the UN to impose a worldwide blasphemy law that would condemn any expression that could be construed, however broadly, as "defamation of religions." Following the assassination of two prominent Pakistani officials who opposed that country’s draconian blasphemy laws and strong opposition from UN HRC member states, especially the United States, the OIC decided in March not to introduce its defamation of religions resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. Instead, on March 24 of this year, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a consensus resolution on “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief,” which properly focused on protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, instead of protecting religions from criticism. While this battle is over for the time being and represents a victory for free speech, the same battle for phony rights continues in the West.
The rationale behind the defamation of religions agenda was the same as the one behind the decision to censor the speech of Andrew Bolt and Dr. Van Gend in Australia and to arrest the “Ku Fu Fighting” singer in the U.K. The Orwellian effort to redefine human rights damages many real rights and betrays the legacy of the great United Nations declaration that was signed on this day.
Kristina Olney is a fellow of the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society, and Law and a native of Australia.
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