On March 26, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed the non-binding measure, which is the latest in a series against hate speech and “defamation of religion.” The process began in 1999, when Pakistan first called for such a resolution.
“Who determines when a religion is defamed?” Barry Bussey, director of legislative affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was quoted as saying in a March 27 report from the Adventist News Network. “[This resolution] is simply too fraught with possibilities of abuse of power,” he added. Bussey called for more concerted opposition when the resolution comes up for renewal next year.
The U.N. Human Rights Council was set up in 2006 to address human rights violations, and is the successor to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. This was often criticized for the high-profile positions on the commission, which it gave to member states that did not guarantee the human rights of their own citizens.
A joint statement issued by about 200 secular, religious and media groups ahead of the March 26 vote warned against “defamation of religions” resolutions being used, “in certain countries to silence and intimidate human rights activists, religious dissenters, and other independent voices.”
The International Humanist and Ethical Union, which groups humanist, atheist, rationalist, and secularist organizations, has supported the joint statement, which said that the concept of “defamation of religion” had, “no basis in domestic or international law, and would alter the very meaning of human rights, which protect individuals from harm but not beliefs from critical inquiry.”
Pakistan remains the leading sponsor of “defamation of religion” resolutions, the ANN release reported.
The U.N. resolution was passed by a vote of 23 votes in favor, 11 against and 13 abstentions, which represents a less enthusiastic endorsement compared to votes on similar issues in previous years, and one that IRLA officials say suggests growing opposition against such measures.
The text describes religious defamation as, “a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of their adherents and incitement to religious violence”. It adds, “Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.”
IRLA experts met in 2008 to discuss the emerging issue of hate speech and “defamation of religions.” With no universally acceptable definition of “defamation of religions,” the group concluded that any attempt to enforce the then-proposed resolution would be arbitrary and subjective, and depend largely on individual sensitivities.