Freedom House condemns the UN Human Rights Council for undermining the universal right to freedom of expression by once again passing a resolution that urges members to adopt laws outlawing criticism of religions.
The “defamation of religions” resolution, introduced by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization for the Islamic Conference (OIC), passed today by a vote of 23-11, with 13 abstentions. Muslim nations have been introducing similar resolutions since 1999, arguing that Islam-the only religion specifically cited in the text-must be shielded from unfair associations with terrorism and human rights abuses.
“These countries are using the UN to expand and bring legitimacy to their frontal assault on freedom of expression,” said Paula Schriefer, Freedom House advocacy director. “This assault starts at the level of domestic blasphemy laws present in many OIC countries, which are routinely employed to harass and imprison religious minorities, political dissenters and human rights advocates, and is elevated to the international level through resolutions at the UN.”
Freedom House is especially disappointed that South Africa, a liberal democracy whose citizens’ have a deep understanding of how such laws are used to punish dissenters, continues to back these resolutions. Similarly, strong democracies such as South Korea, Japan, India, Mexico and Brazil should have actively worked to defeat the resolution, instead of casting abstention votes.
In contrast, Freedom House applauds the leadership shown by Chile in rejecting the resolution and hopes that Chile will work to persuade other Latin American countries to vote in a manner that accurately reflects the democratic nature of their region. Such an effort would send a message that freedom of expression is a universal right and not just a right to be enjoyed by the citizens of Western democracies.
Text condemning “defamation of religions” was originally part of a draft declaration to be issued at the Durban II anti-racism conference in Geneva next month. But it was withdrawn after Western nations said they would pull out of the UN conference unless it was removed.
In addition, supporters of “defamation of religions” are increasingly attempting to incorporate the concept into existing human rights law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). They claim that “defamation of religions” leads to “incitement of hatred or violence,” which is a legitimate restriction under the ICCPR’s Article 20.
“It’s preposterous to suggest that criticizing or satirizing a religion automatically leads to hatred or violence or in any way prevents its adherents from practicing their faith,” said Schriefer. “In fact, the ability to question religious beliefs or tenets is not only a right of free expression, but a critical aspect to freedom of religion itself.”
Of the 14 OIC members on the council, only Indonesia is ranked Free in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties. Four of these countries-Cameroon, Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia-are ranked Not Free, demonstrating an absence of political rights and a systematic denial of basic civil liberties. A further analysis of Freedom in the World comparing levels of freedom of expression and belief within OIC countries to regional groupings finds that only the Middle East and North Africa would receive a lower score in these categories.