CFI Pushes Back Against Religious Restrictions on Free Expression, Joins Debate at UN HRC

October 22, 2008

A Special Report:

In September 2008, the Center for Inquiry went to Geneva for the ninth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Although a staunchly secularist organization, it was there to fight for the right to talk about religion.

For several years, a coalition of Islamic states–aided by Russia, China, Cuba, and a group of developing countries–has placed the "defamation of religions" high on the U.N. human rights agenda.

In March of this year, the coalition went further to institute what amounts to a blasphemy prohibition at the Human Rights Council itself. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression was changed so that it now includes policing the world for "abuses" of expression that offend religion (this in the context of the release of the Dutch film,


). These events can be seen in the context of a larger movement to promulgate a system of Islamically correct human rights that subordinates rights to a particular political interpretation of


, or Islamic law.

In a final irony, when nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the Council (or HRC, formerly the Human Rights Commission) tried to ask whether such a system was compatible with universal human rights, the Pakistani delegation objected that the mere discussion of the matter was an insult to the faith. Astonishingly, the president of the Council ruled that henceforth NGOs would not be permitted to make statements containing “judgments” about religion at all.

Alerted to the gravity of the situation by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)–represented ably by veteran U.N. activist Roy Brown–CFI sent representatives to the HRC for the first time since gaining U.N. affiliation. At the ninth session, the Center for Inquiry

  • co-sponsored a mini-conference on freedom of expression and religion;
  • released two CFI research papers on Islam, human rights, and the “clash of civilizations” to the international press;
  • established contact with NGOs and governments concerned with freedom of expression and religion;
  • publicly participated in the Council deliberations on women’s rights, “Islamophobia,” the “defamation of religions,” and the universality of human rights; and
  • contributed to the international debate on the defamation of religions, which now appears to be turning in a favorable direction. A number of democratic countries are pushing to stop the resolution at the current General Assembly.

Contributing to the Debate

CFI issued five official statements to the HRC, jointly with the IHEU and the Association for World Education. Hugo Estrella, co-director of CFI’s international programs, drafted and read a statement (in Spanish) highlighting religious threats to women’s reproductive freedom, and Austin Dacey drafted and read a statement urging the Council to abandon the dangerous notion of the defamation of religions, asserting: “Rights belong to individuals, not ideas. . . . Belief depends on the freedom to doubt, to dissent, to discover.”

On September 17, CFI co-sponsored, with IHEU, a panel discussion on recent restrictions to free inquiry into religious matters within the Council chambers themselves. The speakers, in addition to Dacey, were Naser Khader, member of the Danish Parliament and leader of the Liberal Alliance party; Walid Phares, the U.S.-based expert on terrorism and the Middle East; and Tarek Fatah of the Canadian Muslim Congress. The meeting was attended by representatives of the Holy See and the European Union, among others.

At the meeting, and at an international press briefing that followed, CFI released two research papers: “Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations, ” available   at

and “Is There a Clash of Civilizations? The Failure of the United Nations Response,” available at


Coalition Building

In Geneva, and at a preceding U.N. conference in Paris, CFI forged high-level contacts with government delegations, most notably the French and American, which are very concerned about the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) push to criminalize religiously offensive speech in international law. Additionally, CFI networked with a large number of NGOs with kindred concerns. They included the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, European Centre for Law and Justice, Freedom House, International Federation for Human Rights, International Commission of Jurists, UN Watch, Bahà’i International Community, Lutheran World Federation, and many others.

In connection with its activities in Geneva, the Center for Inquiry was asked to join the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which meets in Geneva and New York.

The importance of CFI’s Voice at the Human Rights Council

It now looks likely that even the OIC will relinquish the notion of the defamation of religions and seek instead to work within the existing legal notion of hate speech that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence. Such notion falls within the limitations on freedom of expression provided for in Article 20 of the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Such an outcome represents progress but signals difficulties ahead. For in seeking guidance in interpreting the proper balance between protection of freedom of expression and protection of individuals against incitement, the discussion may now look to the existing jurisprudence of European human rights courts. These courts by and large have been much more eager than, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court to limit speech that they consider anti-Jewish or anti-Christian. This legal tradition invites the charge of hypocrisy from the Islamic states, which will demand equal protection for Islamic belief. On the other hand, some cultural conservatives may maintain that the heritage of Europe warrants a privileged place for the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Therefore, it will be critically important in the coming debates that there be a thoroughly secular, nonpolitical entity (one that is not compromised by being regarded as a partisan in the highly polarizing issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) to advocate the principled solution to this dilemma: no protection for any belief from criticism, ridicule, and even contempt, except when the speech presents a clear and present danger to some person. As a U.S.-based secular organization, CFI is the ideal representative of this position.

CFI has laid the groundwork for participation in the tenth session of Council, which will focus on issues of freedom of religion. This is to say nothing of the other pressing issues on which CFI’s perspective is needed, such as the restriction on women’s freedoms by religion, particularly in Latin America and Africa.

This December marks the sixtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Much remains to be done to fully realize its ideals. The Center for Inquiry has established itself as a major stakeholder in these ongoing struggles at the Human Rights Council and beyond.

# # #

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