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EU resists push to limit free speech at UN meeting

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FRANK JORDANS | December 17, 2008 01:23 PM EST | AP

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GENEVA — Islamic proposals to ban criticism of religion, which have gathered strength since the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad two years ago, threaten to derail an already troubled U.N. anti-racism conference planned for next year.

The European Union rejects suggestions by Algeria _ backed by other Muslim and African countries _ that limits on free speech are needed to stop the publication of offensive articles and images.

Supporters of the proposal, who have been pushing for such a ban to be included in international anti-discrimination charters, want it discussed in April at a high-level United Nations anti-racism meeting in Geneva.

But European diplomats say that is out of the question.

"We have made it clear from the start that we will not negotiate," French diplomat Daniel Vosgien told The Associated Press on Wednesday. France currently holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU.

Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said the Islamic demands could wreck the meeting.

The U.N. expert on freedom of expression, Frank LaRue, has criticized so-called "anti-blasphemy laws" used to protect religion in some countries.

"Such laws are often used to prevent legitimate criticism of powerful religious leaders and to suppress the views of religious minorities, dissenting believers and nonbelievers, and are applied in a discriminatory fashion," LaRue said in a statement released Monday.

Israel and Canada have already said they will stay away because of concerns that the meeting will see a repeat of anti-Semitic outbursts that marred the first anti-racism conference Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

The United States has also indicated it may stay away from the meeting, dubbed "Durban II."

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said Tuesday his country would boycott if anti-Israel statements are not scrapped from draft texts being drawn up for the meeting.