Geneva, 11th March 2014.
The Freedom Rights Project’s Aaron Rhodes blogs from the 25th Session of the UN Human Rights Council:
The UN Special Rapporteur (SR) on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeld, reported to the UN Human Rights Council on 11 March 2014, presenting a report dated 26 December 2013, which concerns how States should deal with “collective religious hatred.”
The report discusses the “root causes” of this problem, which the SR said include “political authoritarianism which discourages people from communicating openly and participating actively in public debates….Governments may also instrumentalize religion as a means of shaping and reinforcing narrow concepts of national identity, tapping into feelings of religious belonging for the purpose of strengthening political loyalty.”
The SR recommended “trust-building” through public institutions and communication.
A section of the report concerned “advocacy for national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence,” and the application of ICCPR Article 20 para 2.
The SR stressed: “It cannot be emphasized enough that this provision does not demand a prohibition of sharp or even hostile speech in general: instead it concentrates on such forms of hatred advocacy that constitute ‘incitement’ to real acts of discrimination, hostility or violence.”
He further stated that the “Rabat Plan of Action explicitly endorses what the Human Rights Committee has clarified in its general comment Number 34, namely that prohibitions enacted under article 20 para 2…must comply with the strict requirements of Article 19” as well as other articles in the Covenant, such as 2, 5, 17, 18, and 26.
He stated in the report that ”freedom of expression…can never be circumvented by invoking Article 20.”
But during the ensuing debate, the “Independent Human Rights Commission” of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation said “disrespect” for religions – as opposed to “criticism” – was equal to “incitement,” and not protected by freedom of expression. Such “incitement” needed to be prosecuted under Article 20.
A representative of the United States delegation criticized incitement and blasphemy laws, and any use Article 20 ICCPR to limit freedom of speech.
At an EU-sponsored side event on 12 March, Ibrahim Salama, Director of the Human Rights Treaty Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, observed that Article 20 contains “ambiguous terms,” that are “difficult to define” and are thus vulnerable to politically-motivated misuse to prevent freedom of expression. Mr. Salama praised the Istanbul Process, which he said had begun as an effort to “clarify concepts,” but also warned that it was “losing energy.”
Other notable comments to arise in the course of the discussion included the Chinese delegation’s insistence that China “protects the rights of all religious groups”.
(Image by: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)