CFI Applauds UN Body’s Strong Support for Freedom of Belief and Expression – But Remains Cautious

August 2, 2011

In a move welcomed by the Center for Inquiry (CFI), the UN Human Rights Committee last week issued a new document strongly condemning blasphemy laws and other restrictions on freedom of belief and expression as inconsistent with existing international law.

The Human Rights Committee consists of 18 experts and is charged with interpreting and tracking the application of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) -- a fundamental UN accord that serves to outline and protect human rights globally. The new 15-page document, entitled General Comment, is the committee’s first on this issue since 1983, and elaborates on existing measures found within the ICCPR. Here are several excerpts:

“Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person. They are essential for any society. They constitute the foundation stone for every free and democratic society. The two freedoms are closely related, with freedom of expression providing the vehicle for the exchange and development of opinions.” (Paragraph 2)

“Freedom of expression is a necessary condition for the realisation of the principles of transparency and accountability that are, in turn, essential for the promotion and protection of human right. (Paragraph 3)

“States parties should put in place effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right to freedom of expression.” (Paragraph 23)

“Restrictions on the right of freedom of opinion should never be imposed.” (Paragraph 49)

It goes on to specifically censure blasphemy laws, which is especially important given their prevalence. Paragraph 48 reads:

“Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant. … Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”

The document also covers topics previously discussed on the CFI blog, like denial of historical facts:

“Laws that penalise the expression of opinions about historical facts are incompatible with the obligations that the Covenant imposes on States parties in relation to the respect for freedom of opinion and expression. The Covenant does not permit general prohibition of expressions of an erroneous opinion or an incorrect interpretation of past events.” (Paragraph 49)

The committee’s new commentary marks a major victory for supporters of the open, secular society, and especially the Center for Inquiry. CFI holds special consultative status as a non-governmental organization (NGO) under the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and has for years worked with other NGOs at the UN to uphold freedom of belief and expression and equality of rights, as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2008, CFI released a report on attempts by Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to undermine universal human rights, entitled Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations. In 2009, CFI spearheaded a global campaign to oppose the infamous "defamation of religion" resolution under consideration at the General Assembly, sponsored by the OIC. In 2010, CFI opposed another "defamation of religion" resolution considered by the General Assembly. The defamation resolution has since been abandoned due to waning support, in favor of a new measure focusing on the rights of individuals to freedom of belief and speech. However, CFI remains cautious as the new directive still lacks strong wording barring states from restricting religious criticism and dissent. You can read all of CFI’s oral and written statements at the UN by clicking here.

Unfortunately, while the committee’s new commentary is certainly a step in the right direction, it does not go as far as needed. Mainly, the commentary does not explicitly reject language in the ICCPR that still allows for laws restricting religious criticism.

For instance, included in the aforementioned paragraph 48 are exemptions to limit expression for specific circumstances outlined in Article 19 of the ICCPR. Similarly, paragraph 49 carves out space to respect Article 20 of the ICCPR. Article 19 of the ICCPR includes restrictions on expression “For respect of the rights or reputations of others,” and “For the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals.” Article 20 states that “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”  

CFI denounces the incitement of violence and discrimination, but is concerned that such broad language could allow for laws that persecute religious dissidents, religious minorities, and nonbelievers. The above articles can be interpreted expansively to provide citizens with a “right” to not be insulted in their religious feelings, and a “right” to respect for their religious beliefs. These supposed rights have no grounding in international human rights law, nor do they align with the concept of an open, secular society. International law guarantees freedom of religious exercise, not freedom from insult. It guarantees nondiscrimination for individual believers, not respect for belief systems. The UN should work to protect individual religious believers from discrimination without shielding religious belief systems from criticism, and without threatening the rights of religious dissidents, religious minorities, and nonbelievers to express opinions that are unpopular with the majority.

Still, CFI commends the committee’s strong support for freedom of belief and expression as a major improvement from past statements on this issue. We will continue to work at the UN to ensure that future resolutions and measures are employed to protect all individuals -- believers and non-believers alike -- without stifling freedom of belief and expression.