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It's a small but important victory for free expression defenders: the UN Human Rights Council dropped efforts to endorse the concept of defamation of religion at its latest session, say ARTICLE 19 and news reports.

Following calls from IFEX members ARTICLE 19 and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), among other press freedom groups, the Special Rapporteur for contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance, Githu Muigai, found it was not necessary to promote defamation of religion as a new concept.

Rather, he said that current legislation on inciting racial or religious hatred was sufficient, in comments made during a short Human Rights Council debate on 18 September.

At the debate, Jean-Baptiste Mattéi, speaking for the European Union, also applauded the reversal. "It is fundamental to make a distinction between criticising religions and inciting religious hatred. Only the latter... should be banned."

Resolutions that allow for free expression to be restricted to ensure respect for religions have been passed since 2002, and pressure to protect religions from defamation has been growing, especially since the Danish cartoons controversy.

IFEX members, such as ARTICLE 19, CIHRS, Freedom House and the World Association of Newspapers, have campaigned extensively against the growing trend of using religious anti-defamation laws to limit free speech. Other IFEX members, including Cartoonists Rights Network International, have been keeping the issue on their radar.

At a parallel event in Geneva organised by ARTICLE 19, CIHRS, and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), 50 non-governmental organisations and representatives of delegations explored some of the legal and other arguments against defamation of religion.

They argued that religious believers have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs and are protected as such in international law. But they cannot expect their religion to be free from criticism. "The states chose to focus their efforts on protecting religion itself, not the believers and not freedom of religion," said ARTICLE 19.

ARTICLE 19 and CIHRS also said that the resolutions have not been tailored to address the very serious problems of discrimination and intolerance, but focus instead on limiting criticism of religion. Plus, they are drafted in vague terms which leaves them open to being abused, said the groups, and only help to justify censorship and the stifling of dissent.

At the parallel meeting, organisations such as East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders (EHAHRD) and Bahá'í International Community also echoed the Special Rapporteur's assessment that international human rights law offered sufficient protection for religious believers. Besides, said EHAHRD, the current debates on defamation of religion are a way for many governments to divert attention from their own poor human rights records.

Defamation of religion has been most recently promoted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an intergovernmental organisation comprising 57 states with majority or significant Muslim populations. In the spring, OIC had voted for the concept of defamation of religion to be added to UN resolutions. Although the text refers frequently to protecting all religions, the only religion specified as being attacked is Islam.

Some Muslim states continued to press for a defamation of religion concept. Algeria's Ambassador to the UN, Idriss Jazaïry, said at the Human Rights Council debate, "Islamophobia has taken the place of anti-Semitism, which has become politically incorrect in many rich nations. Freedom of expression must not allow the creation of a new form of anti-Semitism against Arabs and Muslims."

There is rumour that the defamation of religion concept will be resurrected at the follow-up conference on racism, which will be held in Geneva next April.

Visit these links:
- Joint statement of ARTICLE 19, CIHRS and EIPR submitted to Human Rights Council:
- Summary:
- Human Rights Council session:
- Human Rights Tribune on session:
(24 September 2008)

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