CFI Applauds UN Resolution Supporting Freedom of Religion but Remains Cautious

December 27, 2011

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is pleased to recognize that for the first time in more than a decade, the United Nations General Assembly has approved a resolution aimed to combat religious intolerance that does not include language referring to the harmful “defamation of religions” concept. The new action-oriented resolution aims to protect believers instead of beliefs. It states that “discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes a violation of human rights” and implores member countries to address and combat what it calls a “burgeoning trend” of incitement to religious hatred.

For years, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a group of fifty-seven Islamic states promoting Muslim values, has pushed successfully for UN Human Rights Council resolutions urging states to combat so-called “defamation of religions.” The non-binding “defamation of religion” resolution-which effectively provided cover for blasphemy laws that persecuted religious dissidents, religious minorities, and nonbelievers-was passed annually by the 193-nation General Assembly for more than ten years.

However, earlier this year, the Human Rights Council voted unanimously to approve a new resolution that makes no mention of “defamation of religions.” This came to fruition on Monday when the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus the new text, which “strongly deplores all acts of violence against persons on the basis of their religion or belief, as well as all attacks on and in religious places, sites and shrines in violation of international law.” The resolution acknowledges the language of Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” It calls on states to take measures “consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat such incidents.”

The new resolution marks a major victory for supporters of the open, secular society, 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 worked with other NGOs at the UN to uphold freedom of belief and expression and equality of rights as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The abandonment of the “defamation of religions” concept is a welcome development, and CFI celebrates this significant turn of events and step forward.

However, CFI also recognizes that the new resolution is flawed.

Mainly, it does not include a provision that CFI has urged for: one explicitly barring states from restricting proselytizing, discussion, or criticism of beliefs, or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, or insult of beliefs—whether secular or religious.

While CFI denounces the advocacy and incitement of violence, discrimination, hatred, and hostility, we remain concerned that the resolution’s broad language could allow room for laws that persecute religious dissidents, religious minorities, and nonbelievers. The resolution can 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.

CFI will continue to work with the UN to ensure that future resolutions and measures are employed to protect all individuals—believers and nonbelievers alike—without stifling freedom of belief and expression.

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at