Defamation of Religion and Ireland’s Hypocrisy(?)
The long-standing debate about the possibility of finding a place for a concept of ‘defamation of religion’ in international human rights law continues. On October 2, the UN Human Rights Council passed (without a vote) a Resolution on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, condemning ‘stereotyping of religion’. The document is available here and you can see webcasts of the discussion leading up to the Resolution here. Recent news on Ireland’s role in this controversy appears after the jump, but a little background may be necessary first. The ostensible aim of these Resolutions has been to meet the impact of Islamophobia, but there are also concerns that the project which inspires them would go further, inhibiting freedom of speech. The Council in its October Resolution:
Reaffirms … the right of everyone to hold opinions without interference, as well as the right to freedom of expression, including … the intrinsically linked rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion….
Also expresses its concern that incidents of racial and religious intolerance, discrimination and related violence, as well as of negative racial and religious stereotyping continue to rise around the world, and condemns, in this context, any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, and urges States to take effective measures, consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat such incidents
The Resolution is notable for the absence of a focus on the concept of ‘defamation of religion,’ which had been the centrepiece of a series of increasingly controversial Resolutions adopted at various U.N. bodies since 1999. It appears to be replaced with the language of ‘stereotyping’, which moves condemnation away from what is said about a religion to the consequences of those statements for the faithful. Nevertheless, the focus on ‘religion’ as opposed to religious individuals has been roundly criticised; in particular by the Becket Fund. Jean-Baptiste Mattei of France, speaking for the EU, was careful to insist that the language of stereotyping could only be understood to refer to individuals. The European Union member states have been especially critical of the Resolutions for some time. You can read more about the earlier Resolutions in this article by Elizabeth Kendal in the International Journal of Religious Freedom.
The United States co-sponsored the October 2009 Resolution with Egypt. The United States now holds a seat on the UNHRC, after a significant period of disengagement from the body and, as was noted on IntLawGrrls, the compromise Resolution is vulnerable to the criticism that it has as much to do with the Obama Administration’s attempts to reach out to the ‘Muslim World’ as with any rigorous endeavour to safeguard human rights. As an aside, Eugene Volokh makes the argument that the Resolution may conflict with the U.S. constitutional framework which balances freedom of religion with freedom of speech.
The Becket Fund has argued that adequate protections for religious minorities already exist at international human rights law and simply need to be exploited properly. Any expansion of the religious protection framework currently supported by international law – for instance in the balance between Articles 18 and 19 ICCPR – they argue, ought to be resisted. Although Resolutions are not binding in themselves, insofar as past Resolutions have urged states to legislate on the defamation of religion and insasmuch as the Resolutions form part of a broader campaign for an ‘international law of blasphemy’ their opponents have warned that they may bolster efforts to stifle freedom of speech and punish dissent in the name of safeguarding religion. This is the position taken bythe Muslim Canadian Congress, by Women Living Under Muslim Laws and by over 200 other NGOs. In testimony before the U.S. Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on October 21, the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Leonard Leo explained his organisation’s opposition to the ‘global blasphemy law’ project:
While they may sound tolerant and progressive, these resolutions do not solve the very real problems of persecution and discrimination suffered by the adherents of many religions around the world. Rather, they exacerbate these problems. The “defamation of religions” concept promotes intolerance and human rights violations, creating wide latitude for governments to restrict free expression and religious freedom. In addition, the concept deviates sharply from the historically rooted object of international human rights protections by addressing the interests of religious institutions and interpretations, rather than the rights of individuals.
October’s compromise Resolution does not appear to have suffocated the ‘defamation of religion’ project. The Index on Censorship reported last week that the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (an international organistion with a permanent delegation to the U.N.) and the African Group (a regional grouping within the U.N.) have approached the Durban Ad Hoc Committee For the Elaboration of Complementary Standards with proposals which, if accepted, would to some extent enshrine the concept in international human rights law. The second session of the Ad Hoc Committee is being held from 19 to 30 October 2009, in the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The Committee has a
‘mandate to elaborate, as a matter of priority and necessity, complementary standards in the form of either a convention or additional protocol(s) to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, filling the existing gaps in the Convention, and also providing new normative standards aimed at combating all forms of contemporary racism, including incitement to racial and religious hatred”.
Finally, Ireland has been embarrassed by the apparent disconnect between our domestic law and what we are preaching on the international stage. Ireland opposed the December 2008 incarnation of the ‘defamation of religion’ Resolution, and is part of a bloc of countries at the Ad Hoc Committee meetings which insist that no new international legal standards need to be articulated to prohibit ‘defamation of religion’. Our influence in these matters is, however, under something of a cloud. As Nigeria pointed out on Day 1 of the Durban Ad Hoc Committee meetings, the Defamation Bill 2006 has recently passed into law here. UN Watch notes that Nigeria called the Bill a ‘defamation of religion’ Bill. Ireland called Nigeria’s remarks “a false representation,” and noted that it was ‘a blasphemy Bill in accordance with articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).’ The Examiner newspaper spotted this difficulty in May.