IHEU: ‘Combating Defamation of Religion’ unnecessary, flawed and morally wrong

  • Date / 23 July 2007

In its submission on Combating Defamation of Religions to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva IHEU has damned the current process at the UN as “unnecessary, flawed and morally wrong”. In the submission, IHEU affirms that each individual should be absolutely free to form, hold or change his or her beliefs and condemns any attempts at stereotyping of religions, racial profiling of individuals, and any and all calls for violence in the name of religion or God. IHEU also expresses deep concerned that the exercise to combat ‘defamation of religions’ could compromise established freedoms including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

Resolutions on Defamation of Religion (originally “Defamation of Islam”) were adopted by the former UN Commission on Human Rights in 1999 and every year until its abolition in 2006. The IHEU submission says that the very concept of ‘defamation of religion’ is flawed, since it is individuals, both believers and non-believers alike, who have rights, not religions.

International Humanist and Ethical Union
1 Gower Street, London WC1E 6HD

Submission on
‘Combating Defamation of Religions’


The Anti-Discrimination Unit,
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is an international NGO in special consultative status with ECOSOC. It is the world umbrella organisation for Humanism. Its membership includes more than 100 Humanist, Rationalist, Secular and Ethical Culture organisations from over 40 countries and from all continents. IHEU wishes to thank the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for inviting contributions from NGOs on the question of ‘Defamation of Religions’.

The UN and Defamation of Religions

• We note that in 1999 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) received a draft resolution titled ‘Defamation of Islam’. After some amendments this text was adopted by the UNCHR under the title ‘Defamation of Religion’ and is a non-binding resolution of the UNCHR. (Resolution 1999/82 of 30 April 1999).

• We also note that following adoption of similar resolutions in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, the phrase ‘Defamation of Religion’ has gained currency at the UN, to the extent that on 8 September 2006, when the UN GA adopted a global counter-terrorism strategy, it contained the phrase, “and to promote mutual respect for and prevent defamation of religions.”

• We also note that the first ‘Defamation of Religion’ resolution was adopted in 1999, before the dreadful terrorist attacks on civilian population in the US on 11 September 2001. Those who perpetrated these terrorist acts did so by invoking God, religion and wanted to be martyrs for their religion. The various versions of the resolution adopted post-2001 do not contain an unequivocal denouncement of such use of religion to justify or incite any form of violence or hatred.

• We also note that in 1999, the very year in which this controversial resolution was first introduced by Pakistan at the UN Commission on Human Rights, the then UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance Professor Abdelfattah Amor pointed out in his 23-page report to the UN General Assembly that religious extremism was on the rise all over the world. Significantly, he stated: “No religion is free from extremism”.

• We also note that in April 2007, the new avatar of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the 47-member Human Rights Council, adopted the resolution ‘Combating Defamation of Religions’ with 24 countries in favour, 14 against and 9 abstentions. Non-Islamic countries Russia, Cuba and China voted in favour of preventing the “negative stereotyping” of religions and “attempts to identify Islam with terrorism.” With this broad-based support, the resolution has assumed a seriousness which requires reasoned analysis.

IHEU and Freedom of Religion
As an NGO which represents Humanist organizations engaged in the task of defending and promoting Freedom of Expression, and as an organization which has historically allied itself with those working for human freedoms, human values and human emancipation, IHEU and its member organizations affirm that Freedom of Religion is an inalienable right of every human being, and that each individual should be absolutely free to form, hold or change his or her beliefs about metaphysical and spiritual matters. We also affirm that the right of all individuals to hold their views should be respected, and that they are entitled to protection from the state when these freedoms are endangered. IHEU also affirms that religious rights and freedoms, like all human rights, are vested in the individual, not the group.

IHEU has unequivocally condemned in the past, and still condemns, any attempts at stereotyping of religions, racial profiling of individuals, and any and all calls for violence in the name of religion or God. It is logical that those who seek the protection of the law for their freedom of religion should also be accountable to it for their free exercise thereof.

Deep Concerns
We are deeply concerned that the present exercise to combat ‘defamation of religions’ through the UN and through national and international legislation has grave implications for established freedoms including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion – the last of which the sponsors of the resolution at the Human Rights Council are apparently aiming to protect.

We find these resolutions to be both unnecessary and deeply flawed.

Within the context of human rights, the very concept of ‘defamation of religion’ is flawed, since it is individuals, both believers and non-believers alike, who have rights, not religions. Furthermore the lack of a definition of the term “defamation” leaves these resolutions open to abuse.

Freedom of Expression
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) confirms that all individuals have the fundamental right to “freedom of opinion and expression,” subject to limitations determined by law “for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights of freedom of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in democratic society.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in its Article 19(1-2) provides that “[e]veryone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “the right to freedom of expression.” According to Article 19(3), a State may limit freedom of expression for “respect of the rights or reputation of others” and, according to Article 20, a State must limit freedom of expression to disallow advocacy of “religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence . . . .”

As the scholar Maxim Grinberg has pointed out, Eleanor Roosevelt, when speaking for the United States, opposed the Article 20 of the ICCPR on the ground that it would allow governments to silence all criticism “under the guise of protecting against religious . . . hostility,” rendering other basic rights guaranteed by the ICCPR “null and void.”

We at IHEU fear that this is exactly what is happening now and this was why IHEU’s Main Representative Roy Brown intervened at the UN Human Rights Commission during its 60th session (15 March – 23 April 2004), asking the Commission to be:

“mindful of the distinction between defamation of a religion, and the publication of academic research into its origins, history and practices. We all deplore defamation and falsehood. But it would be a tragedy if concerns about defamation were allowed to stifle honest inquiry and the publication and expression of factual data. We would also urge all states to recognise that with so many differing beliefs current in the world, genuine differences will arise. The honest belief of one man should not be treated as defamation of his religion by another.

Also, it has become a fashion to style every criticism of religion as hate speech, specially in the case of Islam. ‘Islamophobia’ is being increasingly used as a blanket term to cover both criticism of Islam and hatred of Muslims. It is used by Muslim leaders to demonise even those who express legitimate concerns about any aspect of Islamic practice, such as the stoning of women for adultery, by equating such criticism with hatred of Muslims.

As UN Special Rapporteur Prof. Abdulfateh Amor said in April 2004 to the Commission on Human Rights “There are two problems – when religion is the property of the state, and when the state is the property of religion.”

In many states that have an official religion, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are severely restricted.

Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience
The current attempts to ‘combat defamation of religions’ at the UN are in fact attempts to apply internationally, and in a different form, the blasphemy laws that are in force in many of the countries which are pushing forward this resolution.

The IHEU believes that the increasing currency given to the misleading notion of ‘defamation of religion’ will lead to a great threat to both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. As IHEU said at the 2004 Human Rights Commission “…we would urge those states whose laws are based on their understanding of God’s law, not to treat calls for the change or repeal of any law as defamation of their religion, or worse, as blasphemy or as evidence of apostasy”.

We are concerned that in the context of the various moves to combat defamation of religion, the UN has not been able to provide leadership by protecting the freedoms enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are however heartened that the architect of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Council of Europe, has recently come to the defense of freedom of expression and recommended that religious groups accept that their beliefs cannot be protected from criticism. The Council of Europe recommended the repeal of blasphemy laws to its member countries:
Freedom of expression is not only applicable to expressions that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive, but also to those that may shock, offend or disturb the state or any sector of population within the limits of Article 10 of the Convention. Any democratic society must permit open debate on matters relating to religion and beliefs.
IHEU commends this to the UN bodies considering the question of ‘Defamation of Religion’.

Conflicting Rights?
It is often suggested that freedom of expression must accommodate people’s sensibilities and sensitivities, but a freedom that cannot be freely exercised can hardly be considered a freedom. While we should all draw back from giving gratuitous offense, it should be for the good sense of every individual as to how best to express oneself, in a way that minimizes conflict in society. Defenders of the freedom of religion need to accept that whilst it includes the freedom to freely practise one’s religion, it does no include the right not to have one’s religious feelings or beliefs challenged or criticized. Freedom of religion implies the right to criticize one’s own or another’s religion, a freedom that is at the heart of religious reform and social progress. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and is the freedom that underpins many other freedoms. All too frequently denial of freedom of expression results in deprivation of other substantial human freedoms and liberties. We do not accept that the freedom of religion takes precedence over the freedom of expression.

In fact the debate over conflicting rights is based on a false premise. There is no freedom not to be offended.

A Cover for Discrimination
It would be unacceptable for concerns over ‘Defamation of Religion’ and ‘Islamophobia’ to lead us astray from Human Rights discourse, and for them to become a shield against criticism for states that fall short of their obligations under the various international human rights covenants and conventions.

For instance, while Pakistan was the sponsor of the 2002 Resolution on ‘Combating Defamation of Religions’ which applied the resolution to all religions rather than Islam alone, under Pakistan’s own domestic legislation, different religions receive different levels of protection from the state in cases of blasphemy. In theocratic states the charge of apostasy is a constant threat to religious dissenters and the free exercise of both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience is severely impeded. These states will now have the added weapon of these UN resolutions to further limit these freedoms. The current discussions about ‘Defamation of Religion’ have not adequately recognized the rights of individuals to choose or to change their religions.

‘Defamation of Secularism’?
We also wish to express dismay at the demonising of European secularism by the present Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism. He clearly fails to understand that secularism – that is, state neutrality in matters of religion and belief – is not an expression of intolerance but a guarantee of religious freedom for all, a defence of the values on which our human rights are based, the very values that the UN and its bodies should be seeking to protect.

Unnecessary, Flawed, and Morally Wrong
We believe that as Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination already requires States to forbid not only the advocacy of hatred, but also “all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, and the provision of any assistance to racist activities,” new resolutions and new legislations are unnecessary. We also note with concern that during the debates on defamation of religions, the focus has been almost entirely on Islam. There is a tendency to ignore anti-semitism for example.

Equally troubling is the fact that nowhere in these resolutions has the term “defamation” been defined. Attempting to restrict freedom of expression on the grounds of defamation without even defining the term is wrong in principle and bad in law. It could lead, for example to justifying the criminalization of apostasy on the grounds that it constitutes defamation of the favoured religion.

Attempts to protect religions from ‘defamation’ are really seeking to protect religion from critical evaluation, and aiming to stifle religious dissent, and would therefore constitute a violation of the principles of the UN Charter and a disavowal of the freedoms of individuals in favor of those who deny them in the name of group rights.

There are deeper moral issues because a religion that needs the power of a state and the threat of punishment for criticism loses its persuasiveness and its moral character. We should progress towards a universal civilization that will flourish on the free exchange of ideas and the critical examination of each other’s beliefs in a true celebration of our common humanity.

The current exercise in ‘combating defamation of religion’ is doing quite the opposite.

Babu R.R. Gogineni, International Director, IHEU
Roy W. Brown, IHEU Main Representative, UN Geneva.

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