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A Multi-Pronged Approach in the Battle Against Religious Intolerance

November 22, 2011|Deborah Brown, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow
Earlier this week, the General Assembly’s Third Committee passed by consensus a resolution on combating religious intolerance that marked a decisive break from a previous text on religious defamation, which provided a cover for abusive blasphemy laws around the world. This development marks a victory for human rights defenders and champions of freedom of expression, and illustrates the building of international norms that can only take place at the United Nations.


For over a decade, efforts were made in several UN venues to promote the idea that defaming religions is a human rights violation. The concept of religious defamation was seen as a dangerous one by many, as it is inconsistent with universal human rights standards, which protect individuals—not religions or abstract ideas—and runs counter to the principle of freedom of expression.
 
Blasphemy laws have been used throughout the world to persecute religious minorities or individuals who do not subscribe to the officially accepted practice of a certain religion. Blasphemy laws have also come under international scrutiny several times in recent years. A particularly egregious case took place earlier this year when Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, an outspoken opponent of religious extremism, was shot 27 times and killed by one of his security guards. Taseer’s assassination was initially welcomed by crowds in Pakistan, where blasphemy is punishable by death.

This tragic event gave momentum to the efforts of diplomats, NGOs, and human rights defenders (including Taseer’s daughter Shehrbano who is continuing her father’s work) to fight blasphemy laws at the international level. A significant victory was achieved at the Human Rights Council (HRC) in March when the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) culminated their 12 year push to ban defamation of religion by sponsoring a new resolution (resolution 16/18) on combating discrimination and violence based on religious belief. Adopted by consensus, the resolution recognized the need to combat the root causes of religiously motivated violence, discrimination, and intolerance, while acknowledging the need to protect freedom of expression.

In July, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a joint statement with the Secretary General of the OIC emphasizing the dire need for the implementation of resolution 16/18. Clinton announced that the U.S. would invite OIC member states to Washington in late 2011 as the first in a series of meetings on how best to implement resolution 16/18.

While the HRC resolution was welcomed widely, some feared that this gain would be lost at the Third Committee this fall if diplomats reverted to their customary positions.  Early action and strategic diplomacy by the U.S. and others heightened awareness around this issue so that it did not become a lost opportunity to reinforce gains made in Geneva. These efforts paid off, as the Third Committee fully embraced resolution 16/18 and took the further step of requesting the UN Secretary General to submit a report on “steps taken by states to combat religious intolerance” at next year’s session.

If the full General Assembly passes this resolution, the concept of religious defamation will be defeated, at least rhetorically, at the international level. The fight against the religious defamation concept is a good example of how domestic and international efforts can reinforce one another, and how the U.S. can work in concert with the UN to advance human rights.


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