On Human Rights Day, 10 December 2008, four of the world’s leading experts on freedom of expression issued a joint declaration on the dangers posed to that freedom by UN resolutions combating defamation of religion, and by national anti-terrorism and anti-extremism legislation.
Welcoming the declaration, Roy Brown, IHEU main representative at the UN, Geneva said. “We have been struggling long and hard against the attacks on freedom of expression by the Islamic States and their allies – and even some Western states – and it is good news that the world’s leading experts on freedom of expression have chosen to make a stand. It is particularly gratifying that they have come out strongly against the concept of defamation of religion:
* The concept of ‘defamation of religions’ does not accord with international standards regarding defamation, which refer to the protection of reputation of individuals, while religions, like all beliefs, cannot be said to have a reputation of their own.
* Restrictions on freedom of expression should be limited in scope to the protection of overriding individual rights and social interests, and should never be used to protect particular institutions, or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones.
Here is the declaration in full:
International Mechanisms for Promoting Freedom of Expression
JOINT DECLARATION ON DEFAMATION OF RELIGIONS, AND ANTI-TERRORISM AND ANTI-EXTREMISM LEGISLATION
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the ACHPR (African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information,
Having met in Athens on 9 December 2008, under the auspices of ARTICLE 19, Global Campaign for Free Expression;
Recalling and reaffirming our Joint Declarations of 26 November 1999, 30 November 2000, 20 November 2001, 10 December 2002, 18 December 2003, 6 December 2004, 21 December 2005, 19 December 2006 and 12 December 2007;
Recognising the importance to democracy, as well as to holding social institutions accountable, of open debate about all ideas and social phenomena in society and the right of all to be able to manifest their culture, religion and beliefs in practice;
Emphasising that there is an important difference between criticism of a religion, belief or school of thought and attacks on individuals because of their adherence to that religion or belief;
Noting that success in promoting equality in society is integrally linked to respect for freedom of expression, including the right of different communities to have access to the media both to articulate their views and perspectives, and to satisfy their information needs;
Aware of the fact that negative social stereotyping leads to discrimination and limits the ability of those subject to it to be heard and to participate in public debate;
Stressing that the primary means to address underlying social problems of prejudice is through open dialogue that exposes the harm prejudice causes and that combats negative stereotypes, although at the same time it is appropriate to prohibit incitement to hatred, discrimination or violence;
Welcoming the fact that a growing number of countries have abolished limitations on freedom of expression to protect religion (blasphemy laws) and noting that such laws are often used to prevent legitimate criticism of powerful religious leaders and to suppress the views of religious minorities, dissenting believers and nonbelievers, and are applied in a discriminatory fashion;
Concerned about the resolutions on “defamation of religions” adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights and its successor, the Human Rights Council, since 1999, and the UN General Assembly since 2005 (see General Assembly Res. 60/150, 61/164, 62/154; Commission on Human Rights Res. 1999/82, 2000/84, 2001/4, 2002/9, 2003/4, 2004/6, 2005/3; Human Rights Council Res. 4/9, 7/19);
Concerned also about the proliferation of anti-terrorism and anti-extremism laws in the 21st Century, in particular following the atrocious attacks of September 2001, which unduly restrict freedom of expression and access to information;
Cognisant of the important contribution of respect for freedom of expression to combating terrorism, and of the need to find effective ways to counter terrorism which do not undermine democracy and human rights, the preservation of which is a key reason to fight terrorism in the first place;
Aware of the abuse of anti-terrorism and extremism legislation to suppress political and critical speech which has nothing to do with terrorism or security;
Stressing the importance of the role of the media in informing the public about all matters of public concern, including those relating to terrorism and efforts to combat it, as well as the right of the public to be informed about such matters;
Adopt, on 10 December 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the following Declaration on Defamation of Religions, and Anti-Terrorism and Anti-Extremism Legislation:
Defamation of Religions