The West standing firm on Freedom of Expression

  • Date / 18 February 2009

In the run-up to the UN conference on Racism (The Durban Review Conference) to be held in Geneva in April, IHEU representatives have been attending the informal preparatory meetings charged with agreeing the outcome document to be presented to the conference. IHEU has prepared several briefing notes for the meetings, on slavery, untouchability and on freedom of expression. On Monday 16 February we presented a second briefing note on Freedom of Expression below:

It was encouraging to see that during the debate on the section of the text on “Freedom of religion, incitement to religious intolerance hatred or violence, defamation of religion, freedom of expression” which lasted for over an hour, the West stood firm in its defence of Freedom of Expression. Among the states speaking out against the concept of defamation of religion were the United States, the Czech Republic (for the European Union), Australia, Singapore, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK. Several states also called for the elimination of the list of “phobias”, most notably “Islamophobia”, from the text.

International Humanist and Ethical Union: Durban Review Conference

Briefing Note

Threats to Freedom of Expression in the DRC

“Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” Potter Stewart

In January 2009, the working group reviewed new references to religious matters for the Durban Review Conference outcome document. We note with concern that several of the propositions contained in paragraphs 24 to 28 may conflict with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights concerning Freedom of Expression.

Of particular concern are the following points:

1. The use of the terms Islamophobia and Christianophobia confuse and conflate opposition to religious beliefs with hatred of the believer. Criticism of any religious belief or practice is permissible within clearly prescribed limits under Article 19 of the ICCPR. It should not be equated with intolerance, hatred or violence towards Muslims or Christians.

We therefore recommend that the words Islamophobia and Christianophobia be deleted from paragraph 24 of the outcome document and replaced by terms which specifically address hatred towards individuals rather than beliefs.

2. As a number of delegations have pointed out in debates in the Human Rights Council, Defamation of Religion is a concept that has no place in Human Rights discourse. We would add that criticism of a religion – even amounting to ridicule or “defamation” – has nothing to do with racism and has no place in the outcome document.

We therefore recommend that the reference to defamation of religion be deleted from paragraph 26 of the outcome document.

On the other hand, we welcome attempts to defend Freedom of Expression in the document, since this right is essential in exposing violations of the human rights of the powerless and oppressed. It should not be undermined, nor limited for political, cultural, religious or any other reason except as permitted under Article 19 of the ICCPR. May we respectfully suggest therefore that wording along the following lines be added to the outcome document:

Recalling Article 19 of the ICCPR regarding the Right to Freedom of Expression, we call upon all States where this right is not respected to introduce legislation for its protection and to undertake programs of education in this right for all sections of society, including public officials and the police, in order to ensure that the right to Freedom of Expression is respected and not undermined for political, cultural, religious or ideological reasons.

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