Freedom of Expression under threat at the Human Rights Council

  • Date / 1 July 2006

The first session of the new UN Human Rights Council got underway on 19th June in Geneva, but despite the hype and high hopes, little seems to have changed for the better. The same old faces and same old complaints: Israel, Palestine, Palestine, Israel, are still being heard, coupled now by calls for curbs on freedom of speech, a freedom that we were told was “flagrantly abused” by the Danish cartoons – “a blatant attempt to inflame religious hatred”, according to the ambassador of Bangladesh – a thought echoed by the delegates from Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom called for new mechanisms to curb criticism of religion on the grounds that it is indistinguishable from incitement to religious hatred. It was hard to realise that this was the Council set up at the request of UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan to replace the Commission that, in his words, had become “too selective and too political” in its work.

IHEU was able to make a short statement to the plenary on 26th June in defence of freedom of expression (see below). Nevertheless, the Council decided that action to combat defamation of religions was necessary.

From the final report of the 1st session of the HRC, 30 June 2006

“The Council … requested the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to select, in close consultations with the regional groups, five highly qualified experts to study the content and scope of the substantive gaps in the existing international instruments to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Resolution adopted 30 June 2006

“The Council … expressing deep concern over the increasing trend of incitement to religious hatred and defamation of religions as well as its recent manifestations.

“Request the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to report to the next session on this phenomenon.”

The request by the Human Rights Council to the High Commissioner for Human Rights actually pre-judges the outcome of the study by speaking of “the” substantive gaps in existing international instruments rather than “any” gaps. The “substantive” gaps refer of course the perceived failure of the current international instruments to protect religions from abuse. The Council appears to have tacitly accepted that religions have rights that must be protected by international human rights law. Such a finding would blow a hole in the fundamental principle that human rights reside in the individual – rather than the group, association, race, culture or religion.

Surely the following facts should be emphasised:
1. The almost complete freedom of Muslims everywhere in the world to practice their religion. This should be contrasted with restrictions on religious freedom in many Islamic states, and the harsh treatment of Muslims who wish to leave Islam.
2. Certainly incitement to hatred for any reason must be opposed, but freedom of expression only has any value if it includes the right to offend.
3. That it is human beings, not opinions or beliefs, that must be protected.

The request to the Special Rapporteurs: Asma Jahangir (SR on Freedom of Religion or Belief) and Doudou Diene (SR on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance) to report on the “increasing trend to incitement to religious hatred” was made in the context of strongly critical remarks made by many delegates about the Danish cartoons. Unfortunately, Doudou Diene has already produced a biased report on the situation of Muslim and Arab peoples in various part of the world [E/CN.4/2006/17 – in French only] and he will no doubt draw extensively on that report in responding to this request. (IHEU responded to this report with a written statement [E/CN.4/NGO/244])

We can only hope that Asma Jahangir will provide some balance in her response.

Roy Brown

Statement by Roy Brown, main representative of IHEU,
to the First Session of the Human Rights Council
Monday 26 June 2006.

Pressing Human Rights Issues:
Incitement to Hatred Based on Religion

Mr President,

All civilised people must deplore incitement to hatred based on religion – or indeed for any other reason. But it is vital to distinguish between incitement to hatred, defamation of religion, and valid criticism of human rights abuse carried out in the name of religion.

No new sanction is needed against incitement to hatred based on religion. Incitement to hatred for any reason is already covered in national and international law.

We view with disquiet calls by certain states to outlaw “defamation” of religion. We note that some of the states promoting this measure have a poor human rights record, particularly in the area of freedom of religion or belief. Furthermore, the absence of an adequate definition of the term “defamation” adds to the suspicion that some states may be promoting this resolution in order to shield their own human rights records from criticism.

The right to question religion and to freely express one’s views on religious matters is a human right. Human beings have human rights, religions do not. This Council has a solemn duty to protect people – not ideas, religions, customs, beliefs or traditional practices, especially when they are used as justification for the abuse of human rights. It is the believer, not the belief, that must be protected.

Freedom of expression is protected under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which makes no exception on the grounds of religion. It would ill-become the Human Rights Council in one of its first acts to attempt to impose such a restriction.

We have made available copies of our written statement of 27 March 2006, E/CN.4/NGO/244, which addresses this issue in more detail.

Thank you.

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