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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Defamation of religion passes at UN Human Rights Council again

The United Nations Human Rights Council has once again passed a resolution proposed by Islamic countries which urges the creation of laws in member states to prevent criticism of religion (namely, Islam).

United Nations

Members of the Human Rights Council voted 23 in favour of a resolution yesterday to combat "defamation of religion." Eleven nations, mostly from the West, opposed the resolution and 13 countries abstained.

Ahead of the vote, nearly 200 secular, religious and media groups from around the world (including the NSS) appealed to the Council in Geneva to reject the proposals, which were introduced by the 56-nation Organisation of Islamic Conference.

In a statement, the coalition of NGOs said the “defamation of religion” resolution “may be used in certain countries to silence and intimidate human rights activists, religious dissenters and other independent voices,” and to restrict freedom of religion and of speech. The resolution, its critics said, would also restrict free speech and even academic study in open societies in the West and elsewhere.

The OIC argued that criticising or satirising religions is a violation of the rights of believers and leads to discrimination and violence against them. The resolution, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the OIC, says “Defamation of religion is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of their adherents and incitement to religious violence. Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.”

It called on states to ensure that religious places, sites, shrines and symbols are protected, to reinforce laws “to deny impunity” for those exhibiting intolerance of ethnic and religious minorities, and “to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs”.

The resolution is not binding, but versions of it have been passed repeatedly by the Council, at which Muslim countries and their supporters have a built-in majority. It is thought that the resolution will have a chilling effect on free speech and help justify suppression of dissent in many of the despotic countries that voted for it.

The Canadian representative said: "It is individuals who have rights, not religions. Canada believes that to extend (the notion of) defamation beyond its proper scope would jeopardise the fundamental right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of expression on religious subjects.”

The German representative, speaking for the European Union said that while instances of Islamophobia, Christianophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of religious discrimination should be taken seriously, it was “problematic to reconcile the notion of defamation (of religion) with the concept of discrimination”.

“The European Union does not see the concept of defamation of religion as a valid one in a human rights discourse,” it said. “The European Union believes that a broader, more balanced and thoroughly rights-based text would be best suited to address the issues underlying this draft resolution.”

Activist groups say this new resolution is part of a growing offensive by the Islamic countries to impose their concepts of rights and religion on the rest of the world. They argue that the concept of "defamation of religions" is so vague that it can be used against any challenge to a religious tenet and bolster laws against blasphemy in authoritarian regimes where one religion holds sway.

Condemnation of “defamation” was originally included in a draft of a declaration to be issued by a U.N. anti-racism conference, dubbed Durban II, in Geneva next month, but was withdrawn after Western countries said it was unacceptable (see last week’s Newsline).

However, critics say they fear OIC states and their allies are working to insert it in an existing U.N. convention against racial discrimination. They say "defamation of religion" has no validity in international law because only individuals, and not concepts or beliefs, can be defamed.

Among the groups signing Wednesday's statement were the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, the Muslim Council of Canada, the American Islamic Congress, the World Jewish Congress, the U.S. Freedom House, and the Paris-based International Press Institute. It was also backed by organizations representing believers, agnostics and atheists in India, Australia, Europe, Africa and Latin America.

Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (to which the NSS is affiliated), and the moving force behind the NGO protest, said: “The resolution is part of a wider campaign by the Islamic States to impose values on the rest of the international community which are largely unacceptable in liberal democracies. Freedom of Expression is protected in international law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 states that everyone has the right “to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” Articles 19 and 20 also set out the permitted limits to freedom of expression. They do not include protection for ideas, beliefs or religion per se; it is the believer not the belief that the ICCPR seeks to protect. The sponsors of this resolution have failed to understand that Freedom of Religion or Belief depends on Freedom of Expression. If the beliefs of one religion are to be deemed ‘defamation’ of another, society is on a very slippery slope.”

See also:
The slow death of freedom of expression


27 March 2009

Published Fri, 27 Mar 2009