For Immediate Release: November 5, 2010
New York, NY – As the United Nations General Assembly prepares for a heated debate this fall over a contentious “defamation of religions” resolution, Human Rights First is urging delegations to see past the rhetoric that has long-shaped this discussion and take a closer look at the realities that result from such laws. The group notes that a vote in the Third Committee is expected to occur before the end of November, and the General Assembly will tackle the resolution in December.
In an open letter sent to Delegations of the U.N. Member States, Human Rights First noted, “Those who support defamation of religions laws argue that such restrictions are necessary in order to combat incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence, as well as to protect freedom of religion. In practice, these laws create particular problems for those holding religious views that differ from the majority, as well as nonbelievers and adherents to minority faiths.”
To underscore this point, Human Rights First has issued a new report exposing the harsh realities of the “defamation of religions” concept. Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions,” details more than 50 recent cases from 15 countries that provide a window into how national blasphemy laws are abused by governments. The real-life stories in this report document how blasphemy statutes are frequently used to target individuals for the peaceful expression of political or religious views. Human Rights First notes that time and again, accusations of blasphemy have resulted in arrests and arbitrary detentions and have sparked assaults, murders and mob attacks.
For example, one story detailed in Human Rights First’s new report, originates from Egypt, where “defamation of religion” is illegal. On February 22, 2007, Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suliman (a.k.a. Kareem Amer), a 22-year-old law student from Alexandria, was sentenced to four years in prison: three years for contempt of religion and one year for defaming President Mubarak. Disturbed by what Kareem perceived to be religious extremism at his university, he expressed secular views promoting gender equality and questioning Islam on his blog and websites, Modern Discussion and Copts United. Kareem was first arrested in 2005 and detained for 12 days. In November 2006, he was arrested again after being expelled from Al-Azhar University, who had informed state prosecutors of his writings. Until his trial, he was held in solitary confinement because he refused to recant. In March 2007, the Court of Appeals upheld Kareem’s conviction and approved a civil claim brought by Egyptian lawyers who sought to fine him for insulting Islam.” Kareem’s family has disowned him and his father has called for the application of Sharia law against him. For his efforts, Kareem was awarded the 2007 Hugo Young Award for Journalism and is an honorary member of English PEN.
Despite widespread abuse of blasphemy laws, for more than a decade, efforts have been made through several channels at the United Nations to promote the concept that states have an obligation to adopt and enforce laws against the “defamation of religions.” Most recently, in March, there was growing UN Human Rights Council opposition to a “defamation of religions” resolution brought before the Council and many nations that had previously abstained from this debate chose to speak out in opposition to the measure’s passage. Though a growing number of U.N. States ultimately voted against the resolution, it narrowly passed.
The U.N. General Assembly has shown a similar steady erosion of support for the “defamations of religions” concept. This fall’s defamation of religions resolution will test the will of nations to ultimately reject this problematic measure and the harsh realities of its potential passage and replace it with action steps that governments must take to combat violence, discrimination and bigotry.
“Violence and discrimination against Muslims – as well as members of other religious minorities – is a real concern and more should be done to confront and counteract this problem,” said Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke. “But creating new international norms restricting freedom of expression is not the way. Instead, governments and communities need to join forces to speak out and condemn acts of bigotry and hatred. Governments should also do more to combat violence motivated by religious intolerance.”
Human Rights First notes that this approach works and cites a recent U.S. example to back this claim. According to the group, in the wake of the debate surrounding the “Burn A Koran Day” planned by a small congregation in Gainesville, Florida, a wave of public outcry was unleashed. From officials at the highest levels of government and prominent military leaders to local elected leaders and ordinary Americans, voices from across the nation united to convey a very different message – one of tolerance and peace. Their actions demonstrated how political tools – as opposed to laws created to limit freedom of expression – can effectively confront and counteract violence, discrimination, incitement and hatred.
Speaking out against intolerance has long been a cornerstone of Human Rights First’s work. For example, the organization’s 10 Point Plan to Combat Hate Crime provides governments with steps they can take to confront hate speech while respecting freedom of expression. To read more about this work, visit http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/discrimination/pages.aspx?id=150.