Last week, Daniel Greenfield had a gem of an article at FrontPage in which he highlighted something few others would have unearthed: that when Facebook decided recently to keep its ban on former President Donald Trump, the Facebook Oversight Board based the decision in large part on a UN-commissioned document known as the Rabat Plan of Action.
The Rabat Plan of Action is a detailed plan for combating “incitement,” and was put together in a series of meetings in 2011 and 2012 under of the auspices of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR.
Greenfield’s summary is a must-read, and I won’t reiterate it here but commend it to your perusal. Instead, I want to focus on a separate point related to the obvious unacceptability, which Greenfield calls out, of vaunting UN guidance over U.S. law in matters of free expression.
The timeframe and the reference to the Rabat POA sparked a train of recollections for me, which took me to the closely intertwined matter of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and the Istanbul Process. The Istanbul Process was about finding ways to implement Resolution 16/18, which in turn is about protecting religion from attack and “incitement.”
The pivotal point is that Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, was one of two launching sponsors of the Istanbul Process in 2011 – contemporaneously with the meetings leading to the Rabat POA. It was called the Istanbul Process because it was launched at an international meeting chaired by Clinton and her co-sponsor, Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in Istanbul in July 2011.
It was in her opening address at this meeting that Hillary Clinton uttered what would become a famous passage (emphasis added):
In the United States, I will admit, there are people who still feel vulnerable or marginalized as a result of their religious beliefs. And we have seen how the incendiary actions of just a very few people, a handful in a country of nearly 300 million, can create wide ripples of intolerance. We also understand that, for 235 years, freedom of expression has been a universal right at the core of our democracy. So we are focused on promoting interfaith education and collaboration, enforcing antidiscrimination laws, protecting the rights of all people to worship as they choose, and to use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming, so that people don’t feel that they have the support to do what we abhor.
That’s the part I remembered. These words were widely discussed and criticized at the time, both because they seemed to promote an anti-rule-of-law attitude about rights of expression, and because they came off as weasel-wording an intent to just chuck rights of expression in the U.S. and go with the Orwell-style peer pressure and shaming already.
Those are not expressions of American principles of freedom and rights (which start, importantly, with the premise that “incitement” is in the eye of the beholder, and the sanction of it must not constitute a heckler’s veto, or be used to repress liberty of speech or thought).
It should be obvious how that formulation of Clinton’s connects to Facebook’s, and other social media platforms’, practice of peer-pressure conformity in enforcing arbitrary political speech codes, so as to exclude users like Trump.
But there’s a little more to this. The “little more” involves a pair of interesting facts about the Rabat POA, one of which is very informative, and the other, well, ironic.
The Rabat POA and the Istanbul Process were both instituted to address the concerns of Resolution 16/18 about religious discrimination and incitement. They were separate processes, although the people involved in each were well aware of, and made frequent reference to, the other.
The Rabat POA, which produced a document now being used to inform and justify decisions – including Facebook’s – was assembled by panels of experts who convened in the meetings in 2011 sponsored by the OHCHR. They weren’t diplomats with portfolios from their nations, either to express national will or to make decisions.
This series of meetings reported out the Rabat POA in October 2012. In January 2013, the OHCHR “implemented” the POA, which basically meant accepting it as a document expressive of things the OHCHR favors.
The OHCHR, per se, doesn’t have the power to “implement” the POA for purposes beyond that. That’s the informative fact: the Rabat POA is essentially a set of recommendations from panels of experts (who were activists and academics from NGOs, gathering to present papers to each other and discuss proposals. The papers and particulars of the meetings can be viewed at the last link).
That’s the mighty court of world opinion that continues to silence Trump, through Facebook’s interpretation of its recommendations.
The other interesting fact is that beyond the endorsement from the OHCHR, and the occasional uses like Facebook’s to which it is put (scroll down here), the Rabat POA has not been implemented anywhere – not even by the UN Human Rights Council.
The POA is all very well if it confines itself to exerting peer pressure on persons like Donald Trump. But most of the Human Right Council members are uninterested in checking their privilege to designate and punish blasphemy.
That’s the ironic fact in the mix. Daniel Greenfield rightly points out that UN-sponsored guidance is being deployed by Facebook as a high card over the principle of free expression enshrined in American law and practice. But it’s worse than that. The UN-sponsored guidance came from a BOGSAT, and has the formal imprimatur only of a high commissioner with no power to implement or enforce anything, in any sovereign state on the planet.
But it does reflect Hillary Clinton’s principle of “old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming,” to discourage free expression that others may choose to see as “incitement.” In that sense, we might bridge any little gaps in direct attribution to call it “Hillary’s revenge.”