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UN resolution on defamation of religions goes against free speech, say IFEX members

Despite protests from 40 IFEX members, UN adopts resolution on defamation of religions.
Despite protests from 40 IFEX members, UN adopts resolution on defamation of religions.
Forty IFEX members sent a joint statement, coordinated by ARTICLE 19, to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) this month to protest resolutions on defamation of religion, arguing that any decision to combat defamation of religions contradicts the right to freedom of expression. The joint action also urged the UNHRC to reject any resolutions to add "complementary standards" to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Instead, IFEX members say that established international human rights guarantees on freedom of expression must be upheld to deal with global challenges of violence, discrimination and hatred on racial and religious grounds.

A separate joint letter coordinated by ARTICLE 19 and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), signed by 47 civil society organisations, including four IFEX members, was also sent to member states of the UNHRC in advance of the meeting on the resolution. It argued that international human rights standards should protect individuals and groups from discrimination and harassment on the basis of their religion or ethnicity. And belief systems should not be shielded from debate or criticism.

Any draft resolution on defamation of religions would be counterproductive to its goals of promoting equality and non-discrimination of individuals on the basis of their religion by supporting state practices which discriminate against religious minorities, dissenting voices and non-believers, says the joint action signed by 40 IFEX members. Efforts to codify defamation of religions will have negative long-term effects on freedom of expression.

In addition, amendments to the ICERD are unnecessary, say the 47 civil society organisations. "What is needed today is appropriate implementation of existing standards and political will to fight discrimination and hatred against individuals or groups, based on their religion." ICERD changes would lead to a binding international agreement on "defamation of religions."

Nonetheless the UN did adopt a resolution on 25 March, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), on "combating defamation of religions," with 20 states voting in favour. This resolution also goes against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which "only prohibits advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to violence, discrimination and hatred," says the joint letter by the 40 IFEX members.

In related work, on 11 March, ARTICLE 19, Amnesty International, CIHRS and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights submitted a brief to the Indonesian constitutional court, stating that the country's laws, which permit punishing the "abuse or defamation of religions," are contrary to international human rights law. The Indonesian criminal code delivers a five-year prison sentence to anyone who publicly expresses views or engages in actions which are considered "abuse or defamation" of select religions in the country.

And on 10 March, Freedom House held a panel discussion in Geneva with human rights defenders from Indonesia, Nigeria and the United States to discuss options for combating religious discrimination without restricting free speech. Resolutions calling on governments to ban speech considered offensive to some religious believers have been passed each year since 1999, reports Freedom House. The resolutions have not decreased acts of religious discrimination and intolerance, while moderate voices have been ignored in the debate. As well, legal measures to protect religious beliefs from criticism are counterproductive to the goal of promoting religious tolerance.

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