CFI Welcomes UN Resolution Excluding “Defamation of Religion” Language—But Again Remains Cautious

December 21, 2011

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is pleased to recognize that, for the first time in more than a decade, the United Nations General Assembly has approved a resolution aimed at combating religious intolerance that does not include language referring to the harmful “defamation of religions" concept. The new action-oriented resolution aims to protect believers instead of beliefs. It states that “discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes a violation of human rights” and implores member countries to fight what it calls a “burgeoning trend” of incitement to religious hatred.

In years past, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a group of 57 Islamic states promoting Muslim values, has pushed successfully for UN Human Rights Council resolutions urging states to combat the so-called "defamation of religions." The non-binding resolution -- which effectively provided cover for blasphemy laws that targeted religious dissidents, religious minorities, and nonbelievers -- was passed annually by the 193-nation General Assembly for more than ten years.

However, earlier this year, the Human Rights Council voted unanimously to approve a new resolution that makes no mention of "defamation of religions." This came to fruition on Monday when the General Assembly adopted by consensus the new text, which “strongly deplores all acts of violence against persons on the basis of their religion or belief, as well as all attacks on and in religious places, sites and shrines in violation of international law.” The resolution acknowledges the language in Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” It calls on countries to take actions “consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat such incidents.”

The new resolution is 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 fought the defamation of religions concept, and worked to uphold freedom of belief and expression for all, as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Unfortunately, the new resolution has its shortcomings. Mainly, it does not include a provision that CFI has urged for: one explicitly barring states from restricting proselytizing, discussion, or criticism of beliefs, or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult of beliefs, whether secular or religious.

While CFI denounces the advocacy and incitement of violence, discrimination, hatred, and hostility, we remain concerned that the resolution's broad language could allow room for laws that persecute religious dissidents, religious minorities, and nonbelievers. The resolution 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, but it should do so without leaving room for laws that shield religious belief systems from criticism, and threaten the rights of religious dissidents, religious minorities, and nonbelievers to express opinions that are unpopular with the majority.

In fact, the speech limitations potentially allowed by the resolution conflict with Article 19 of the ICCPR, which reads: “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice” (though Article 19 also includes troubling 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”).

Still, the abandonment of the "defamation of religions” concept is a welcome development. Free speech and human rights proponents are right to celebrate this significant turn of events. 

CFI 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.

You can read about all of CFI’s work at the United Nations here.