The Human Rights Council should reaffirm international consensus on freedom of expression and freedom of religion - Priority #HRC28

Press release

Freedom of expression is not opposed to freedom of religion or belief. They are complementary and mutually reinforcing, their concomitant realization guaranteeing the free expression of a diversity of opinions, beliefs and convictions. In this context, the right to freedom of expression “does not apply only to ’information’ or ’ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or indifferent, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any other sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there can be no democratic society. [1] While limits to freedom of expression are outlined by international law, [2] this right needs to receive enhanced support from the international community in light of renewed challenges to, or overt attacks against, it – in particular on grounds that “blasphemy” should be prohibited and religion shielded from any kind of criticism.

In 2011, overcoming deep divisions among its member states, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted resolution 16/18. Within its action plan, it calls upon states to, inter alia:
 Encourage the creation of collaborative networks to build mutual understanding promoting dialogue and inspiring constructive action;
 Create an appropriate mechanism within governments to, inter alia, identify and address potential areas of tension between members of different religious communities, and assisting with conflict prevention and mediation;
 Speak out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence;
 Recognize that the open, constructive and respectful debate of ideas can play a positive role in combating religious hatred, incitement and violence;
 Encourage the representation and meaningful participation of individuals, irrespective of their religion in all sectors of society.

Through a series of inter-governmental meetings since 2011, known as the “Istanbul Process”, states have periodically met to discuss implementation of the resolution. Through a process born out of the Durban Review Conference, the OHCHR held a series of regional expert consultations to explore legislative patterns, judicial practices and policies conducive to effectively prohibit and prevent the advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, while protecting the right to freedom of expression. At the final expert meeting in Rabat, Morocco, a Plan of Action was adopted. The Rabat Plan of Action recognized in particular that the exercise of the right to free expression is the rule and prohibition of speech should not only be an exception but a last resort, and quoted the UN Human Rights Committee to say that “blasphemy laws are counter-productive, since they may result in censoring inter-religious dialogue and healthy debate”. It also affirmed that prohibitions on incitement (recognized in Article 20 of the ICCPR) cannot be a pretext to curtail criticism of the state, dissent or open debate.

However, as demonstrated and exemplified by the hypocrisy of leaders who rushed to Paris to march for freedoms on 11 January 2015, only to return home and support anti-Charlie Hebdo protests or ban its publication, international consensus is fragile. Recently, we have observed renewed attempts by governments and social movements to act directly against the spirit of resolution 16/18 [3], challenging international standards and the universality of human rights on the basis of so-called regional, cultural or religious “particularities” (such as the inadmissibility of “blasphemy” or criticism of political or religious leaders). In such contexts, many of those regimes and leaders “apply these laws selectively, often to punish minority, dissenting or unpopular viewpoints.”

The first victims of such violations are those giving voice to independent thought, like Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who sought to defend a more liberal vision of Islam and much needed reforms in his country. He was punished with 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam”, 10 years in prison and a fine. Human rights defenders who defend those arbitrarily arrested for crimes related to freedom of expression risk their lives. A member of the Pakistani Human Rights Commission, Rashid Rehman, was murdered on 8 May 2014 in Pakistan. He had been representing an individual accused of blasphemy and had received threats; yet the Pakistani authorities had refused to protect him. In 2014 in Mauritania, Aminatou Mint El Moctar, Chair of the Association of Women’s Heads of Households, was the target of a fatwa simply because she defended those prosecuted for apostasy. In Viet Nam, Bui Thi Minh Hang, Nguyen Van Minh and Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynhwere sentenced to several years of imprisonment for causing public disturbances because they defended freedom of religion and belief. [4]

In parallel, in many parts of the world, we have seen an upsurge of movements targeting religious groups in the name of religious or cultural protectionism, sometimes promoting and taking part in violent attacks. In Burma, Rakhine nationalists have targeted the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are subjected to discriminatory laws and policies and have in the past three years been victims of increasingly blatant mob violence with almost total impunity. In Sri Lanka and Pakistan, violence has been incited by a range of state and non-state actors against religious minorities, and governments continue to fail to protect these minorities in law and practice. In Europe, anti-Muslim groups like “PEGIDA” in Germany have taken hate speech to the streets.

In the aftermath of the publication by Charlie Hebdo, on 14 January 2015, of a caricature of Prophet Muhammad, several demonstrations took place across the world to protest against a broad interpretation of freedom of expression (that extends to criticism of religion, caricature and “blasphemy”). In some places, such as Chechnya, these protests were incited or encouraged by state authorities. While the right to peacefully demonstrate is inalienable, unacceptable attacks against minorities (for instance, Christians in Niger), cultural centers and other buildings, took place during these protests. While each of these movements is tainted by its national political context, they should not be under-estimated in light of the bigger picture, i.e. global attacks against universal standards – on the basis of “traditional values”, “protection of the family” or prohibition of “defamation of religion” or “contempt of religion”.

The Human Rights Council is at the center of these challenges to the universality of human rights. At this important juncture, states must reaffirm the consensus built around resolution 16/18, the Rabat Plan of Action and the Istanbul Process. It is time to reaffirm that violence and discrimination committed in the name of religion are unacceptable, that the rights to free expression and to free religion or belief are inter-related, and that restrictions to these rights are exceptional and clearly outlined in international law.

During the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council (March 2015), FIDH will advocate for strengthened consensus around resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action, and their actual implementation, by organizing a side event with the support of partners ARTICLE 19, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Human Rights First, Universal Rights Group, Forum-Asia, as well as it member organization the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). The event will be an opportunity to:
 Reflect on recent attacks committed in the name of religion, marches in defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms (including the right to “blasphemy” through caricature or criticism) that took place in Paris on 10-11 January 2015, and in Copenhagen on 14 February, and protests in defense of restrictions to freedom of expression based on the prohi­bition of “defamation of religion”;
 Reaffirm international standards on freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, opposing potential renewed attempts to challenge them and the consensus that was reached on their relationship and inter-relatedness, and reaffirming the universality of human rights;
 Reaffirm the prohibition of violence and discrimination committed in the name of religion, in parallel to the presentation by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of his report on the issue to the Council;
 Advocate for enhanced support by the international community to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, comprehensive implementation of the package of practical measures recommended in HRC resolution 16/18 on “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief” and, further, to employ the Rabat Plan of Action as a blueprint for implementation of international human rights obligations;
 In this context, move towards the repeal of “blasphemy” laws and the abuse of legal frameworks to target religious minorities, political opponents and independent voices.

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