Writers hail UN accord ending push to ban blasphemy
"We are delighted that the OIC has come to share our view that in the necessary work of building mutual respect between the world's religious traditions, the criminalization of speech about a religion, however offensive to its adherents, would have been an unhelpful step," PEN President Kwame Anthony Appiah said today in New York. "This is especially so because incitement to violence on any basis, including religion, is already exempt from the wide protections for freedom of expression in international law."
Beginning in 1997, a coalition of countries led by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) put forward a series on resolutions on "combating religious defamation" that contained language demanding that states ban blasphemy and other religious denigration. PEN and a number of other human rights organizations have lobbied against the proposals, warning that they would significantly erode crucial international and national protections for freedom of expression. In submissions to the Human Rights Council and in a presentation for U.N. delegates in Geneva this past September, PEN cited numerous cases where governments have used religious defamation laws to jail writers and suppress unpopular opinions, and it has insisted that blasphemy laws do little to achieve the stated goal of curbing religious bigotry.
Instead of reintroducing the religious defamation resolution at the current Human Rights Council session, the OIC presented a new resolution that focuses on ending religious discrimination. The resolution, which passed unanimously last Thursday, removes all references to protecting religions and shifts the emphasis to protecting individual believers, something PEN has long argued is the correct approach both in principle and in the law.
"Rights inhere in individuals, not in institutions," the writers organization wrote in a 2008 submission to the Council. "Religions are systems of ideas, embodied in institutions and sometimes states, and as such, they cannot lie outside the bounds of questioning, criticism and description," it concluded. In live testimony and in videotaped statements presented at the PEN-sponsored session in Geneva last September, several of the world's leading writers pointed to what Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka called "the conflicting claims of religion."
"Since you have so many religions in the world, and there is only one humanity, that one humanity and the fundamental claims of humanity have to take precedence." Soyinka told the audience.
"We couldn't be more pleased and relieved that the nations of the world have agreed on a framework that keeps intact the full range of free expression protections," said Larry Siems, director of Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center. "We are grateful to the truly international chorus of writers that spoke out against imposing restrictions on religious defamation, and to our PEN colleagues in London and in Norway particular for their leadership on this critical issue."