The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) for the second year in a row has adopted a resolution aimed at combating religious intolerance that does not include language referring to the harmful “defamation of religions” concept, and that instead focuses on protecting and promoting the rights to freedom of belief and expression.
The resolution, A/HRC/19/L.7, reads in part:
Reaffirming the commitment made by all States under the Charter of the United Nations to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction as to, inter alia, religion or belief.
Reaffirming the obligation of States to prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion or belief and to implement measures to guarantee the equal and effective protection of the law. …
Reaffirming further the positive role that the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the full respect for the freedom to seek, receive and impart information can play in strengthening democracy and combating religious intolerance. …
The HRC also approved a similar resolution, A/HRC/19/L.23, that states:
9. Urges States to step up their efforts to protect and promote freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, and to this end:
(a) To ensure that their constitutional and legislative systems provide adequate and effective guarantees of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief to all without distinction by, inter alia, the provision of access to justice and effective remedies in cases where the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief or the right to freely practise one’s religion, including the right to change one’s religion or belief, is violated;
(b) To ensure that no one within their jurisdiction is deprived of the right to life, liberty or security of person because of religion or belief, and that no one is subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or arbitrary arrest or detention on that account, and to bring to justice all perpetrators of violations of these rights;
(c) To end violations of the human rights of women and to devote particular attention to abolishing practices and legislation that discriminates against women, including in the exercise of their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief;
(d) To ensure that no one is discriminated against on the basis of his or her religion or belief in their access to, inter alia, education, medical care, employment, humanitarian assistance or social benefits, and to ensure that everyone has the right and the opportunity to have access, on general terms of equality, to public services in their country, without any discrimination on the basis of religion or belief;
These votes mark another in a string of recent victories at the UN for supporters of the open, secular society, and especially the Center for Inquiry. CFI holds special consultative status as a non-governmental organization (NGO) under the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and has for years fought against attempts to restrict basic human rights, such as freedom of belief and expression, guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In years past, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 57 states promoting Islamic values, had successfully pushed for a UN resolution urging states to combat the so-called “defamation of religions.” The non-binding resolution — which effectively provided cover for blasphemy laws that targeted religious dissidents, minorities, and nonbelievers — was passed annually by the 193-nation UN General Assembly for more than ten years.
However, in March 2011 the HRC voted unanimously for a new resolution, A/HRC/RES/16/18, that made no mention of “defamation of religions.” Rather, the measure aimed to protect believers, stating that “discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes a violation of human rights.” The defamation-free resolution was then adopted by the General Assembly in December 2011 for the first time in more than a decade.
Yet while CFI considers the passage of these two measures progress, we remain concerned about troubling language contained in both, such as:
Condemns … any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, whether it involves the use of print, audio-visual or electronic media or any other means;
CFI denounces the advocacy and incitement of violence, intolerance, and discrimination, but this line — which is also found in Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) — could be interpreted expansively to provide citizens with a “right” to not be insulted in their religious feelings, and a “right” to respect for their religious beliefs. These supposed rights have no grounding in international human rights law, nor do they align with the concept of an open, secular society. International law guarantees freedom of religious exercise, not freedom from insult. It guarantees nondiscrimination for individual believers, not respect for belief systems. The UN should work to protect individual religious believers from discrimination, but it should do so without leaving room for laws that shield religious belief systems from criticism, and threaten the rights of religious dissidents, religious minorities, and nonbelievers to express opinions that are unpopular with the majority.
We will continue to work at the UN to ensure that future resolutions and measures are employed to protect all individuals — believers and non-believers alike — without stifling freedom of belief and expression.
You can read more about CFI’s work at the UN here.