CFI on UN Human Rights Committee’s Strong Support for Freedom of Belief and Expression

August 4, 2011

In a move supported 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 eighteen 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 fifteen-page document, entitled General Comment, is the committee’s first on this issue since 1983, and elaborates on existing measures found within the ICCPR.

The committee’s new commentary marks a major victory for supporters of the open, secular society, and especially CFI. 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.

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 leaves room for laws restricting religious criticism. Among other things, that language provides that advocacy of 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 broad language prohibiting “hatred” and “hostility” can be interpreted expansively to provide citizens with a “right” not to 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. 

Michael De Dora, CFI’s representative to the UN, recently blogged about CFI’s commitment to continue working at the UN to ensure everyone has the right to freedom of belief and expression. To read his entire post along with excerpts from the Covenant, and CFI’s previous statements at the UN, log onto Democratic Discourse on Free Thinking.