IHEU defends freedom of expression at the UN Human Rights Council

  • Date / 8 June 2009

IHEU representative Cathy Buchs today [8 June 2009] defended Freedom of Expression during a general debate at the 11th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. IHEU applauded the report to the Council by UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, in which he had advised the Council and the UN General Assembly to desist from further statements regarding defamation of religion. Video and the full text of the IHEU statement are available here.

International Humanist and Ethical Union
UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL: 11th Session (2 – 19 June 2009)
Speaker: IHEU Representative, Cathy Buchs 8 June 2009
Agenda item 3B: The Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression

Thank you, Mr President

We thank the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression for his report [A/HRC/11/4] and note in particular his reference to the joint declaration made with representatives of the OAS, OSCE and the ACHPR, which states that restrictions on freedom of expression “should never be used to protect particular institutions or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones”. The declaration went on to encourage the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council to desist from the further adoption of statements supporting the idea of defamation of religions.

Mr President, this view is widely supported in the international community where it is clearly understood that resolutions in the Human Rights Council and General Assembly combating defamation of religion are intended to create a permissive environment for the passage of new laws – and the maintenance of existing national laws – against blasphemy, which is not an abuse of human rights.

In this context we note that the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, the Venice Commission,[i] recently issued a report [ii] in which it argues that while inciting religious hatred should be a criminal offence, blasphemy as such should not be criminalised. since it is protected by the right to freedom of expression.

Mr President, any expression of belief can be seen as blasphemy – or defamation of religion – by followers of a different faith. It is not defamation of religion that undermines the fabric of society but expressions of hatred or violence towards the other – expressions that are already covered under articles 19.3 and 20 of the ICCPR.

We therefore regret the decision by the Dutch cabinet to maintain the blasphemy law against the wishes of the majority of Dutch MPs;[iii] that the Irish parliament is proposing legislation to criminalise blasphemy; and that the latest revision of the Italian Penal Code still contains provisions criminalising blasphemy.

The evidence is clear from states such as Pakistan where, contrary to international law, blasphemy is still a criminal offence and indeed carries the death penalty, that such laws have a profoundly chilling effect on freedom of expression and are widely abused to attack the innocent for reasons of personal or commercial interest.[iv]

Mr President, we urge all states to abolish laws which criminalise blasphemy and instead address directly the issue of incitement to hatred and violence.

In line with the recommendation of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, we urge the Council to reject any future resolutions combating defamation of religion, and to focus instead on the Council’s mandatory responsibility to protect the human rights of individuals, not the supposed rights of abstract concepts, ideas or beliefs.

Thank you sir.

i http://www.venice.coe.int/site/main/Presentation_E.asp
ii http://merlin.obs.coe.int/iris/2009/1/article3.en.html
iii http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2009/05/cabinet_drops_repeal_of_blasph.php
iv https://humanists.international/node/1056

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