Last Thursday, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations adopted a resolution calling for criminalizing defamation of religion. The resolution was submitted by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and was approved by 23 votes in favour, 11 against and 13 abstentions. The European Union member states, Switzerland, Ukraine, Canada and Chile voted against the resolution. We want to express our deepest concern as this resolution clearly contradicts the UN Declaration of Human Rights as well as the European Convention of Human Rights.
The resolution allows governments to limit the basic human right of freedom of speech regarding religion. We strongly believe that the only legitimate limitation of this right is when it explicitly incites violence. Mockery of different beliefs is regrettable and disrespectful towards the individuals concerned, but this should rather be prevented through measures within the framework of basic human rights charters. The following paragraph in particular is completely unacceptable from a body that claims to protect the fundamental values of democracy:
“[The Human Rights Council] urges all States to provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general, and to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and beliefs”
We fear that this text might prove a tool for suppression and human rights violations in the name of defamation of religion, since it is obvious that many governments voting for it feel uncomfortable when it comes to separating state and religion. Furthermore, we wish to point out that criticism of religion can be very necessary, which was the case when numerous governments reacted on the Pope’s statements on the usage of contraceptives.
We want to stress that we are working actively on promoting mutual respect between individuals with different beliefs, one concrete example being a one-week seminar on Islamophobia organized in Istanbul in 2007. However, we do not believe that criminalizing criticism of religions is an adequate instrument for fostering dialogue and understanding. Equating defamation of religions to discrimination on the basis of religion is a serious precedent to further undermining these types of discrimination.