UN Passes “Defamation of Religions” Resolution

December 21, 2009

The United Nations General Assembly has handed yet another victory to Islamic states in their push to curtail freedom of expression out of "respect" for religious beliefs. On Friday the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution combating the so-called "defamation of religions."   The resolution, sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Conference, was adopted with 80 votes in favor, 61 votes in opposition, and 42 abstentions.  (Similar measures have been adopted for the past five years in a row.  Last year 86 member states voted in favor of the resolution.) 

CFI was active in campaigning and lobbying against the resolution through its Mission to the United Nations in New York City. (Read CFI’s statement in opposition to the resolution here .)

The "defamation of religions" resolution is both unnecessary and misguided.  It subverts longstanding principles of human rights law by empowering governments and clerics who seek to silence or intimidate religious dissidents, religious minorities and nonbelievers.  Existing international law already protects individuals from discrimination and from expression constituting incitement to violence.  UN experts agree that the concept of "defamation of religions" is an improper legal instrument for addressing the problem of discrimination based on religion. Asma Jahangir, the United Nation’s outgoing special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, has cautioned that resolutions targeting "defamation of religions" can be used to legitimize anti-blasphemy laws that "punish members of religious minorities, dissenting believers and nontheists or atheists."

Fortunately, the General Assembly resolution is non-binding against U.N. member states.  Yet defenders of religious liberty and freedom of expression should not dismiss the resolution as meaningless.  A movement is afoot at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva to incorporate the "defamation of religions" concept in binding international treaties. In addition, the General Assembly’s resolution gives cover and comfort to governments that stifle freedom of expression.  Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, for instance, carry mandatory sentences of death or life imprisonment, and are frequently used against members of the Ahmaddiya community, a peaceful minority Muslim sect. Ireland passed a law earlier this year imposing a €25,000 fine for "blasphemy" and empowering authorities to raid publishers suspected of harboring copies of "blasphemous statements."  Earlier this year the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the group backing the "defamation of religions" resolution before the General Assembly, incorporated the language of Ireland’s anti-blasphemy statute verbatim in a UN ad hoc committee resolution that would add the "defamation of religions" concept to binding international treaties.  The UN General Assembly’s non-binding resolution lends a patina of respectability to these and other anti-blasphemy measures.

CFI will continue to fight further attempts to stifle dissent from, and criticism of, religious beliefs.  The General Assembly has passed similar resolutions each year since 2005.  The Center for Inquiry will be there to fight this resolution in 2010, both at the General Assembly in New York and at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.