Inside Look: UN Human Rights Council Resolutions on Freedom of Religion, Belief, and Expression

March 26, 2015

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Over the next two days, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) will close its 28th regular session with a flurry of votes, including on two resolutions related to freedom of religion, belief, and expression. For as much as these resolutions spur debate within the halls of the UN, they are far less contentious — indeed, far less known — to the general public. Fortunately, however, I just spent two weeks at the HRC representing the Center for Inquiry (CFI), and was involved in the conversations surrounding these resolutions. This gives me a great opportunity to provide you with an update on these resolutions.

One of the resolutions was drafted and sponsored by the European Union (EU). This resolution has been around for years and is voted on by the HRC each March, although it is designed to pass by consensus. It focuses on protecting the individual rights to freedom of religion or belief in combating religious intolerance.

The other resolution the HRC will vote on is sponsored by the Organization for the Islamic Conference (OIC). This resolution replaced the infamous “defamation of religions” resolution that passed in the HRC and General Assembly from 1999 to 2010. It’s often referred to as the “16/18” resolution, in reference to the number of the first resolution that passed in 2011. It is voted on every other March and, like the first resolution, is designed to pass by consensus. It seeks to combat “intolerance, negative stereotyping, and stigmatization … and incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief” by focusing on promoting human rights and interreligious and intercultural dialogue, but also by condemning hate speech — especially at the state level. 

Final drafts of these resolutions were submitted, as required, two weeks ago. Leading up to the finalization of these resolutions, the sponsors held informal consultations at the HRC with member states and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the Center for Inquiry and our allies at the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and British Humanist Association (BHA).

Interestingly, during the consultation process, there was more debate on the EU resolution than on the OIC resolution. At the EU consultation, several OIC states vigorously objected to certain parts of the text. For example, in an effort led by Pakistan and supported by Egypt, Jordan, Maldives, Morocco, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, OIC states requested the deletion of a new sentence which urges states:

“… to provide protection to persons at risk of violent attack on the grounds of religion or belief …”

Pakistan objected to this language for two reasons. First, its representative said that violent attacks on religious groups often aren’t based on religion or belief, but simply whatever will get the attackers the most media attention. Second, he said the language does not make clear what the government should do when there are violent attacks based on religion or belief between religious groups. Should it protect one group? Or should it protect the other?

The first objection is, as some in the room pointed out, self-defeating. Even if extremists target religious groups for media attention, they are still targeting groups based on their religion. The second reason might appear more profound, but it was quickly dismissed by the representative of the United Kingdom, who calmly explained that member states have an obligation to protect all humans at risk of violent attack on the grounds of religion or belief.

But Pakistan and its OIC allies did not stop there. They also sought to amend the following new sentence to include the bolded language:

“Strongly encourages government representatives as well as leaders in all sectors of society and respective communities, including political, social and religious leaders, and leaders in business and media, to speak out against acts of violence, including hate speech, and to publicly denounce such acts.”

The United States and several other member states, including Switzerland and Japan, expressed deep concerns about this suggestions, on the grounds that “hate speech” is a vague and subjective term, and that the amended language would equate hateful speech with actual acts of violence.

Lastly, several OIC states objected to use of the word “Welcomes” in paragraph 13 when referring to the latest annual report by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielfeldt, on preventing violence committed in the name of religion. In particular, Egypt’s representative stated that the report did not “give due respect to cultural differences.” Both he and the representative of Saudi Arabia said they would be open to a softer term, such as “Notes.” 

Fortunately, in the end, the EU rejected these efforts.

In addition to the aggressive lobbying by Islamic states, though, were lobbying efforts by secularist and humanist NGOs. As readers might recall, CFI and its allies have lobbied on the EU resolution before, calling on sponsors to include more inclusive language that references non-religious individuals and communities. For instance, this year’s text references, in at least a half dozen places, “persons belonging to religious minorities” and “persons belonging to religious communities,” yet ignores the non-religious.

So, we lobbied again for the inclusion of broader language, arguing that citing only “religious” minorities and communities excludes the significant number of people who are non-religious. As the Human Rights Committee — which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a central human rights treaty that provides via its Article 18 one basis for this resolution — stated in its General Comment 22: “the terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ are to be broadly construed,” and include “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.”

In order to ensure the non-religious receive equal regard and protection under this resolution, we requested the text’s language be changed to one of the following options:

“persons belonging to religious or belief minorities” and “persons belonging to religious or belief communities.”

“persons belonging to religious and non-religious minorities” and “persons belonging to religious and non-religious communities.”

Unfortunately, this effort was rejected. I should note that, alongside this effort, we also asked for the inclusion of reference to General Comment 22, and the addition of the following language in paragraph 9(a): 

“… by, inter alia, the repeal or amendment of constitutional clauses discriminating against religious or belief minorities, the provision of access to justice …”

These proposed changes were also rejected, and will almost certainly be more difficult to achieve than the one I detailed above. Still, they were worth putting on the table. Indeed, CFI and its allies had constructive meetings with several state delegations — including the UK, Norway, Switzerland, and the EU — who said they supported our efforts, advised us on potential challenges and revisions, and urged us to continue working throughout the year to add our changes in next year’s resolution.

Fortunately, the EU resolution does include mention of the right “not to adopt” a religious belief. It also expresses concern about constitutional and legislative systems that do not protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief, condemns violations of these rights, and urges states to increase efforts to promote and protect these rights. All things considered, then, the EU resolution is a strong one. But there are still areas that need improvement and, as always, we will continue to work for these improvements.

Which brings me to the OIC resolution. While CFI was deeply engaged in past efforts to defeat the harmful “defamation of religions” resolution, we have been somewhat less involved on the OIC resolution, if only because it is one of the most contentious resolutions at the UN, with little room for change that could challenge consensus. In fact, the language on this year’s resolution is nearly identical to the previous one. The only substantive change is that the new resolution reiterates its own eight-point plan of action, “to address rising incidents of religious intolerance.” This is purposeful and important. Article 20 of the ICCPR provides that:

“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

For years, states have used this language to crack down on peaceful dissent. But in 2013, UN experts published the Rabat Plan of Action, which makes clear that there is a higher threshold for criminalizing and punishing incitement than states have previously employed, and that it cannot be used by states to prohibit most forms of expression, including blasphemy. Rabat also lays out a plan for states to handle issues of incitement to hatred. This plan is mentioned in both the EU and OIC resolutions. However, the EU resolution gives it more notable mention, while the OIC version proposes an alternative, more vaguely worded plan of action — one that is seen by most as at odds with the Rabat Plan. This is especially troubling given that the EU and OIC resolutions are ideally thought to be mutually reinforcing.

I should note that the lack of changes to the OIC resolution made for a consulation that lasted a mere 15 minutes — compared to the EU consultation, which lasted at least 60 minutes — with almost half of those 15 minutes consisting of the EU’s representative asking for the reasoning behind the new wording, and Pakistan’s representative responding by simply reading the resolution’s eight-point action plan word for word

We were and remain well aware that the greater substance of this resolution will be difficult to change, but there is one area where CFI plans to gauge the potential for alteration. While the EU resolution at least references the right to not adopt a religious belief, the OIC resolution rather explicitly does not. We have two years to make sure that it does. 

But, as has been said by others, the most serious challenges surrounding these resolutions — especially the OIC-led 16/18 resolution — are not necessarily in what they say or don’t say, but in the fact that most member states simply do not actually implement them. As Thomas Hughes, executive director of the freedom of expression advocacy group Article 19, wrote earlier this week:

“The consensus behind Resolution 16/18 at the international level is important, but this can only truly be strengthened through implementation on the ground. This requires States to lead by example, to turn the rhetoric of the recent solidarity marches in Paris, an initiative in itself in the spirit of 16/18, into concrete action. … States must do more than simply say the right things at the UN; agreeing to Resolution 16/18 is one thing, but the test will be
whether it is followed up with action to protect freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief for all people.”

Indeed. Even if CFI and our allies don’t have any of our changes implemented — even if the imperfections within these texts remain for years to come — most states that agree to consensus on these resolutions would take an enormous step forward simply by actually implementing the principles within them. And yet here we sit, years into a consensus-based process that so few states actually respect. Accordingly, between now and the time these resolutions are next considered, CFI will continue to seek textual improvements when and where possible. However, we will place even more of our focus on pressuring member states to live up to the crucial promises they’ve already made, in part through the controversial but ongoing Istanbul Process. Because what good are Human Rights Council resolutions — especially those which by consensus — if the states which agree to them are free to ignore their commitments?