Human Rights First Condemns Passage of U.N. Resolution “Combating Defamation of Religions”

New York, NY – Human Rights First condemns today’s passage of the controversial United Nations (U.N.) resolution entitled “Combating defamation of religions” and warns that such measures prohibiting the “defamation of religions” violate fundamental freedom of expression norms and are counterproductive to efforts to confront the  problems of bias-motivated violence, discrimination and other forms of intolerance. The resolution was introduced by Morocco on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). It was adopted today by the U.N. General Assembly with 79 votes in favor, 67 votes against and 40 abstentions – a vote Human Rights First notes is the slimmest margin of support since the resolution was first introduced a decade ago. Last year, for example, 80 countries voted in favor of the resolution, 61 against and 42 abstained. “Today’s vote affirms that support for the defamation concept continues to dwindle. Nevertheless, we deeply regret that this text continues to distract governments from real issues that deserve greater attention , such as fighting the spread of religious violence and hatred, as well as how to counter practices of discrimination that many members of religious and other minorities face in all parts of the globe,” said Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke. “Today’s vote is unfortunate for both individuals at risk whose rights will surely be violated under the guise of prohibiting ‘defamation of religions,’ as well as for the standards of international norms on freedom of expression.” According to the Human Rights First, the defamation of religions concept damages, rather than advances efforts to combat religious intolerance. The passage of this resolution comes as a growing number of individuals around the world have been targeted using national blasphemy and defamation laws. Just last month, on November 9, a Christian farm worker and mother of five in Pakistani, was sentenced to death by hanging under the country’s blasphemy code following a dispute with neighbors. Aasia Bibi’s appeal has been delayed and the President of Pakistan has been barred from granting a pardon until all legal proceedings have been exhausted. That could take years and Bibi has already been in jail since June 2010. Unfortunately, according to Human Rights First, Bibi’s case is not unique. There are scores of cases that provide ample warning of the dangers of enacting a global blasphemy law, which is what this UN resolution seeks to do. Human Rights First recently released a report that documents more than fifty such cases in 15 countries where the enforcement of blasphemy laws have resulted in death sentences and long prison terms as well as arbitrary detentions, and have sparked assaults, murders, and mob attacks. “In country after country defamation of religion and blasphemy laws promote an atmosphere of intolerance where governments restrict freedom of expression, thought, and religion,” Stahnke noted. ”This can result in devastating consequences for those holding religions views that differ from the majority religion, as well as for adherents to minority faiths. Governments and individuals frequently abuse national blasphemy laws not only to stifle dissent and debate, but to harass rivals, legitimize violence, and settle petty disputes.” Ahead of today’s vote, Human Rights First urged all delegations to vote against the U.N. resolution on ‘defamation of religions’ for the following reasons:

  • it provides explicit support for the adoption and implementation of national blasphemy laws that have been used time and again to stifle freedom of expression and other human rights;
  • it employs language both vague and inconsistent with international human rights standards that protect individuals rather than ideas or religions;
  • it permits States to determine which ideas are acceptable – and which are not – thereby stifling debate and dissent;
  • it fails to provide a comprehensive approach to religious intolerance that respects the rights of members of all faiths;
  • it does not seriously address the problem of religious intolerance and how states can protect religious freedom and fight discrimination and violence against members of religious groups without restricting speech, an area where the UN and member states should focus their energy.

To counter such advocacy during their final push to gain support for the resolution, the OIC introduced modifications to the text just before the vote in the Third Committee. First, it sought to address the concern that the resolution’s focus on Islam was too narrow and so “Judeophobia” and “Christianophobia” were inserted into the text. Second, because the phrase “defamation of religions” has become more and more divisive, the replaced the term with “vilification of religions” in most of the text. Human Rights First notes that these last-minute changes made by the OIC failed to either diminish the concerns surrounding the concept of defamation or to offer an improved solution to the problems the resolution purports to address. In its next step on to combat this troubling measure, Human Rights First will continue to urge governments to take steps to confront hate speech and the climate that may accompany violence without restricting speech, as well as to oppose the concept at the Human Rights Council in March. It will also continue to track cases in which this concept is abused.


Published on December 21, 2010


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