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More than 100 rights organisations urge UN to oppose defamation of religions

More than 100 rights organisations worldwide, including 41 IFEX members, have banded together to urge member states at the United Nations Human Rights Council session this month to renegotiate defamation of religions resolutions that make criticising religion a crime in UN resolutions, declarations and world conferences. The 16th Human Rights Council session is taking place from 28 February to 25 March 2011 in Geneva.

In a joint letter to the state representatives on the council, the rights groups say any decision to combat defamation of religions contradicts the right to free expression - and goes against recent international consensus that the concept actually entrenches repression and violence against non-believers and political dissidents.

According to the statement, led by ARTICLE 19, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and Human Rights Watch, over the past two years the concept of "defamation" or "denigration" of religions has been losing momentum at the UN. For instance, three UN special rapporteurs said in a joint statement at the Durban Review Conference in 2009 that laws forbidding "defamation of religions" are regularly relied on to justify discrimination, repression and violence against the religious minorities that they purport to protect.

Plus, says the statement by the 113 rights groups, the debates surrounding the UN resolutions have been "among the most polarising at the UN and have had the effect of stalling international cooperation on other human rights issues."

The groups are calling on the Human Rights Council to renegotiate the resolution on "combating defamation of religions" and get consensus around a resolution which reflects international human rights law - namely that international guarantees on freedom of expression adequately deal with tackling discrimination against individuals and groups on racial and religious grounds. But religion should not be shielded from debate nor criticism, say the groups.

Specifically, they are asking the members states to reject any reference to "defamation" or "denigration" of religions, religious symbols and persons from criticism, and instead support a resolution that focuses on freedom of expression and freedom of religion and non-discrimination in ways that properly reflect international human rights.

Several non-binding resolutions have been voted on and accepted by the UN condemning "defamation of religion" over the past decade, especially since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. The motions, sponsored on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, aim to protect all religions, but the only religion specified as being attacked is Islam.

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