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.
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