Human Rights First Welcomes New U.N. Text on Religious Intolerance

New York City – Human Rights First welcomes a new text on religious intolerance that diplomats at the United Nations Third Committee adopted today. The text was approved  “by consensus” as opposed to a formal vote, which means that it should be easily endorsed at the U.N. General Assembly’s plenary in December 2012. The text approved by the Third Committee, the General Assembly’s body that works on items relating to social, humanitarian affairs, and human rights issues, indicates that governments are resisting the urge of some member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to revive a global anti-blasphemy code that has been a controversial subject at the U.N. for over a decade. Instead, states decided to move forward with a new approach, calling on the international community to fight religious intolerance without including the need to restrict speech. Until last year, combating “defamation of religions,” or blasphemy, was the primary focus of efforts led by the OIC to combat religious intolerance. However, governments and individuals frequently abuse national blasphemy laws to stifle dissent and debate, harass rivals, legitimize mob violence, and settle petty disputes. The loose and unclear language of these laws empowers majorities against dissenters and the state against individuals. They provide a context in which governments can restrict freedom of expression, thought, and religion, and this can result in devastating consequences for those holding religious views that differ from the majority religion, as well as for adherents to minority faiths. “In the past, OIC states tried to equate two different realities at the U.N., where criticizing religion would be considered equal to discrimination that a person would face based on his or her religion or belief. However, the architecture of human rights serves to protect individuals, not ideas. Facts on the ground prove that religious intolerance is on the rise. The real question is how to make states more accountable to fight discrimination at domestic level—rather than trying to restrict speech at international level,” said Human Rights First’s Joelle Fiss. A new approach, which was first agreed on in 2011 and reconfirmed today, calls on states to implement positive measures to fight religious intolerance rather than pushing for legal measures to limit debate in the public sphere. It urges governments to speak out and to condemn hatred, while encouraging open debate, religious freedom, human rights education and interfaith and intercultural initiatives. “The advantage of this process is that it enables everyone to move forward on something that we can all agree on: the need to fight religious intolerance,” concluded Fiss. Human Rights First, together with the Muslim Public Affairs Council has urged governments in the past to Condemn Hate Speech, Fight Violence and Protect Freedom of Expression. For more information on blasphemy laws see Human Rights First’s report, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions.”


Published on November 28, 2012


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