UN Human Rights Council Abandons “Defamation of Religions” Concept

March 26, 2011

For years, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a group of 56 Islamic states promoting Muslim solidarity and values, has pushed successfully for United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions urging member states to combat the so-called "defamation of religions." 

CFI, which holds special consultative status with the UN's Economic and Social Council, fought each year to convince the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly to reject the resolutions, as they were used to legitimate anti-blasphemy laws and the censorship and intimidation of religious dissidents, human rights activists, nonbelievers and atheists.

This year is different.   On Thursday the Human Rights Council voted unanimously to approve a new resolution, based on a draft provided by the Pakistani delegation, that makes no mention of "defamation of religions."  Instead, it underlines the right of individuals to freedom of religion or belief.

This is an enormous step forward.  Hopefully this signals a strong move away from attempts to use the UN's governing apparatus to subvert the guarantees of freedom of speech and belief found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Unfortunately, the new resolution is far from perfect.  It calls for states to foster "religious tolerance . . . and respect," which could provide cover for the condemnation of criticism or ridicule of religious ideas. The resolution does not include an explicit provision CFI has urged in past years: one barring states from restricting proselytizing, discussion, or criticism of beliefs, or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult of beliefs, whether secular or religious. The resolution also fails to address explicitly discrimination against, and violence targeting, non-believers.

Still, the OIC's abandonment of "defamation of religions" is a welcome and unexpected development.  Free speech and human rights proponents are right to celebrate this turn of events. 

CFI will continue working with UN delegations and other NGOs to ensure that religious freedom resolutions are not employed to protect all individuals -- believers and non-believers alike-- without stifling freedom of expression.