Protect free speech around religion, NSS urges UN
Posted: Wed, 28th Sep 2022
The National Secular Society has told the United Nations that efforts to tackle intolerance based on religion or belief must ensure free speech is protected.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is inviting contributions to a report on combatting intolerance, discrimination and violence against people based on religion or belief.
The call for the report was made in a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in April.
In response, the NSS said that while it supported the "broad principles" of the resolution, it was concerned that the proposed strategies to combat intolerance based on religion or belief may be "vulnerable to exploitation" by those who wish to control speech about religion.
It said that as explicit 'blasphemy' laws become less acceptable, some religious institutions attempt to hijack the cause of combatting intolerance by bringing in "blasphemy laws by the back door" through 'hate speech' laws, public order offenses and official adoption of terms such as 'Islamophobia'.
The NSS noted that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), whose recent speech at the Human Rights Council formed the basis of the resolution, has long supported efforts to curtail speech that is offensive to religion.
The OIC is an intergovernmental organisation of 57 states and claims to be the "collective voice of the Muslim world". Although it stopped explicitly campaigning for a global blasphemy law in 2011, it has repeatedly spearheaded attempts to install "backdoor" blasphemy laws, the NSS said.
The NSS said equality laws have a "crucial" role to play in combatting intolerance, stigmatisation and persecution of all kinds. But it warned that equality laws should not entrench existing religious privileges that result in discrimination. It cited exemptions in the Equality Act 2010 that enable some institutions, including state-funded schools, to discriminate on the basis of religion or belief.
The NSS warned that the wording of the resolution leaves nonreligious people vulnerable, as it is not sufficiently inclusive of atheists, humanists and others without religious beliefs. It noted that openly nonreligious people are often subject to "extreme hatred, violence and persecution" around the world.
NSS: Efforts to tackle intolerance 'must not undermine free speech'
NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "Efforts to tackle intolerance based on religion or belief must support the right to freedom of expression – including expression perceived as insulting to religion – rather than undermine this right. All blasphemy laws, including 'back door' blasphemy laws, must be abolished.
"It is also essential that strategies are fully inclusive of nonreligious people. All too often, efforts to promote religious freedom in the name of combatting intolerance can compound the discrimination and marginalisation that nonreligious people already face around the world.
"Freedom to manifest a religion is not absolute and a balance must be struck to protect the rights of others and achieve freedom and fairness for all."
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