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New UN resolution turns away from religious defamation concept

A Christian holds a wooden cross during a rally to condemn the assassination of Pakistan's Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti in Lahore in March 2011. Bhatti was killed for challenging Pakistan's blasphemy law
A Christian holds a wooden cross during a rally to condemn the assassination of Pakistan's Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti in Lahore in March 2011. Bhatti was killed for challenging Pakistan's blasphemy law

REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

The United Nations' top human rights body has abandoned its condemnation of religious "defamation" and instead passed a resolution supporting an individual's right to freedom of belief - a move long awaited by IFEX members.

Rather than reintroducing the religious defamation resolution, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) presented a new resolution at the last Human Rights Council session that focuses on ending religious discrimination.

"Combating Discrimination and Violence", which passed unanimously on 24 March, removes all references to protecting religions from criticism and shifts the emphasis to protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, explains PEN American Center.

ARTICLE 19 and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), which have led the campaign against "religious defamation", said the new resolution is a "significant breakthrough for the Human Rights Council and the international human rights system as a whole."

"This new resolution focuses on protecting an individual's freedom of religion by employing and protecting the very right 'defamation' called into question - namely, freedom of expression," said Bahey Eldin Hassan, the director of CIHRS.

Previous resolutions over the past decade backed largely by the OIC sought to criminalise any criticism of religion that believers found offensive, and the concept of religious defamation evolved into one of the UN's most polarising debates. ARTICLE 19 and CIHRS have long argued that the concept has been used to justify limits on free expression - like validating countries' blasphemy laws that have led to the jailing of religious minorities and repression of political dissidents who speak out against their government.

The new resolution advocates for concrete measures and policies to be adopted, such as developing collaborative networks and monitoring mechanisms, and training government officials to speak out against intolerance.

It stresses the importance of an "open public debate of ideas, as well as interfaith and intercultural dialogue [which are] among the best protections against religious intolerance," Hassan points out.

"If maintained in future UN resolutions, the shift is a momentous one that will provide an important framework to combat discrimination, while upholding existing human rights norms," said Hassan. "By adopting this text the international community has reinforced the principles of freedom that the people of Egypt and other countries in the Arab region have fought so hard to uphold."

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