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UN urged not to support laws prohibiting "defamation of religion"

Five IFEX members urged the UN not to pass a law that would make defamation of any religion an internationally endorsed offense. Statements exposing the anti-free expression repercussions of such a law were made during a panel that was held to coincide with the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva on 16 September. The panel was hosted by International PEN and sponsored by the Norwegian and American PEN Centers, Index on Censorship, the International Publishers Association, and ARTICLE 19.

"Human rights are attached to individuals, not to states or organised groups or ideas," said John Ralston Saul, International PEN president, while chairing the two-hour session.

The UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly have passed several resolutions in the last few years that call on countries to ban "defamation of religions." Interest in such laws has grown in light of recent events around the globe, including a Florida pastor's Koran-burning attempt, bans on the construction of minarets in Switzerland and France's recent move to outlaw Islamic face veils, said Agnès Callamard, ARTICLE 19 director.

While noting that these developments are indeed alarming, the panelists argued that already existing laws on discrimination and preaching hate are sufficient to address hateful attacks on religious groups.

Budhy Rahman from the Asia Foundation said Indonesia's religious defamation laws "punish the peaceful criticism of ideas and disfavoured political or religious beliefs." Indonesia's blasphemy laws were passed in April 2010 and impose jail sentences of up to five years for those who "deviate" from the teachings of the country's official religions. Several IFEX organisations filed an amicus curiae brief urging Indonesia's Constitutional Court to repeal the laws, but the laws were ultimately upheld.

In March 2010, 40 IFEX members sent a joint submission to the UN Human Rights Council to express their dismay over the Council's recently passed resolutions on "defamation of religion."
In the collectively signed letter, the members said any law protecting religion from defamation is "counterproductive to its apparent objective" because, in practice, it would allow for "state practices which discriminate against religious minorities, dissenting voices and non-believers."

In a video statement during the panel, writer Azar Nafisi asked the particularly poignant question, "What will happen to women right now who are fighting against being stoned to death?"

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