At the UN Human Rights Council debate (with Githu Muigai Special Rapporteur on ‘contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’) Human Rights First’s Joelle Fiss spoke on the importance of fighting religious intolerance whilst preserving free speech. She advised against a defamation of religions provision that seeks to criminalize blasphemy. She used the recent Burn a Koran day in the United States as an example on how to fight hatred whilst respecting freedom of speech.
“I am speaking on behalf of Human Rights First. We are dedicated to building respect for human rights and the rule of law and have worked for many years to reverse the rising tide of hate crimes and discrimination to help ensure the protection of fundamental freedoms for all.
Human Rights First congratulates the Special Rapporteur for his report detailing cases of religious intolerance and condemning acts of violence or incitement to violence against individuals based on religion or belief. We believe that the Special Rapporteur is providing a good framework whereby States will be able to better measure their commitments and success in confronting each of the forms of discrimination addressed.
Human Rights First fully supports the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur, in paragraph 90 of his report, whereby he “encourages States to move away from the notion of defamation of religions” and to “anchor the debate in the relevant existing international legal framework”. We oppose all efforts to create internationally binding obligations that aim to criminalize the ‘defamation of religions’. National blasphemy laws are all too often abused to stifle debate and dissent and to target members of religious minorities. These laws serve to protect ideas rather individuals. They enable States to define which views are acceptable and which are not.
Today, the depth of hatred, anger and violence expressed against many religious, ethnic, national and other minorities is alarming. The rise of anti-Muslim bias, and all forms of hate crime and intolerance, must be taken very seriously. But restricting speech is not the answer to fighting bigotry and hatred. What we need more of, is public condemnation of hate crimes, as well as effective policies of inclusion, equality and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. We agree with the Special Rapporteur when he states in paragraph 91 that “legislative responses…are far from being sufficient to bring about real changes in mindsets, perceptions and discourse”.
In recent months, there have been a number of anti-Muslim incidents in the United States that have caused many people to feel concern. Those incidents, including “Burn the Koran Day” and the obstruction of the building of several mosques and cultural centers, were driven by fear and ignorance.
The debate surrounding the “Burn A Koran Day” in the United States provides an excellent example of how non-legislative measures successfully confront and counteract incitement and violence. The hateful rhetoric of an isolated extremist was drowned out by the voices of every day citizens, as well as scores of political, religious and military leaders from across the spectrum, who all used their voices to speak out again hatred. The proposed event was finally cancelled. Human Rights First organized an online initiative asking supporters to send us their top ten reasons NOT to burn a Koran . We received over 5000 suggestions from individuals eager to express their opposition to the burning.
To conclude, we call on all delegates to follow the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur – and to ensure that existing international norms to fight hatred are better implemented at international, national and local levels.”
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