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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

UN urged to protect against religious intolerance without restricting free expression

An American civil rights group, Human Rights First, is urging United Nations member states to combat violence and discrimination fuelled by religious intolerance by passing a resolution that addresses this problem without including the controversial notion of “defamation of religions” or other restrictions on freedom of expression.

Earlier this year inGeneva, the UN Human Rights Council adopted such a resolution by consensus – a ground-breaking event that marked an important shift away from a decade long effort at the UN to create an international blasphemy code.

Human Rights First’s open letter was sent amidst the backdrop of a UN delegate negotiation to craft a similar General Assembly resolution ahead of the October 27 deadline to propose such a measure. In its letter to delegates Human Rights First noted: “For more than a decade, debates at the U.N. have focused on calls to adopt and enforce legal norms to restrict ‘defamation of religions,’—the notion that religions should be protected from insult. These discussions have deeply divided U.N. members and diverted attention and resources from identifying tools that could more effectively combat intolerance while fully protecting freedom of expression, religion and other human rights.”

Human Rights First noted that the March 2011 Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 “charted a new course” by focusing on the protection of the rights of individuals rather than the protection of abstract ideas and religions. The letter stated that the Council resolution “offers concrete steps to fight against religious intolerance and discrimination while recognizing the importance of free expression. It calls on governments to speak out and condemn hatred, while it encourages open debate, human rights education, and interfaith and intercultural initiatives.” Many of these same principles were contained as recommendations in Human Rights First’s Confronting Hatred While Respecting Freedom of Expression.

The progress made in the passage of Resolution 16/18 is particularly important because it marks a sharp departure from previous U.N. resolutions that provided cover for abusive national blasphemy laws. Those laws often resulted in human rights abuses in many countries throughout the world. Human Rights First identified scores of cases that provide ample warning of the dangers of enacting a global blasphemy law. In a recent study, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions,” the group documented over 100 such cases in 18 countries where the enforcement of blasphemy laws have resulted in death sentences and long prison terms as well as arbitrary detentions, and have sparked assaults, murders, and mob attacks.

Human Rights First says: “The adoption of the UNHRC resolution in March spurred a number of encouraging steps to bolster the international political resolve, bringing the provisions of this new resolution to life. For example, in June 2011, the Human Rights Council organized a roundtable to discuss concrete steps to implement its resolution. In July 2011, OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened a meeting inIstanbulwith representatives from the European Union, the Arab League, and the African Union to discuss implementation of the resolution. In a joint statement, participants “called upon all relevant stakeholders throughout the world to take seriously the call for action set forth in Resolution 16/18 and declared their resolve “to go beyond mere rhetoric and to reaffirm their commitment to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression.”

Human Rights First concluded in its open letter to delegates that “U.N. member states should ensure that the General Assembly moves this issue forward by adopting a resolution similar to 16/18, and not backward by considering any language that would undermine freedom of expression”.

Published Fri, 28 Oct 2011