CFI Condemns United Nations Resolution on “Defamation of Religions”

March 26, 2009

The United Nations Human Rights Council has handed another victory to Islamic states in their decade-long push to limit freedom of expression out of “respect” for religious beliefs.

A new Council resolution decries a “campaign of defamation of religions” in which “the media” and “extremist organizations” are “perpetuating stereotypes about certain religions and sacred persons,” and urges UN member states to provide redress “within their respective legal and constitutional systems.” Capitalizing on concerns about racial profiling and discrimination in the era of the war on terror, the language conflates criticism of Islam with anti-Muslim bigotry and seeks to stifle peaceful speech in the name of “dialogue” and “diversity.”

Similar resolutions have been passed at the Council since 1999 and by the General Assembly since 2005. The resolution passed with 23 in favor, 11 against, and 13 abstentions, gaining two votes since the last time it was adopted by the Council.

“The concept of ‘defamation of religions’ is both absurd and dangerous.” said Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI’s president and chief executive officer. “Legally speaking, it’s gibberish, and any ban on so-called ‘defamation’ would effectively prevent any critique of religious beliefs or practices.”

In the opinion of a broad range of civil society organizations, these pronouncements do nothing but lend legitimacy to the repression of political and religious dissent around the world, particularly in Islamic countries. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, for example, which carry mandatory sentences of death or life imprisonment, are frequently used against members of the Ahmaddiya community, a peaceful minority Muslim sect.

Through its UN representative, Dr. Austin Dacey, CFI participated in the negotiations over the resolution during the March session of the Council in Geneva, and delivered an oral statement before the plenary meeting on March 24. Most worrisome, according to CFI, is that the present language equates religiously insulting speech with “advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence,” a category of speech that is prohibited by existing treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which have the force of law.

“Now the argument becomes very awkward for Europe,” said Dacey, “since many European states have laws against hate speech, Holocaust denial, and even blasphemy (for example, in Austria) that have been upheld by their regional human rights courts. The Islamic states will say they simply want to extend the same protection to all beliefs.”

The Center for Inquiry has submitted a written briefing to the Tenth Session of the Human Rights Council detailing a reading of the case law that separates criticism, satire, and insult from incitement.