For Immediate Release: September 27, 2012
Washington, DC – Human Rights First today said that Arab League and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) calls for the international criminalization of blasphemy mark a step backwards in progress toward tolerance. Such measures were also woven into remarks delivered Wednesday by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who made his debut before the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly. Human Rights First helped to defeat such measure at the United Nations last year and now says that efforts to reignite this debate are out of step with the basic human right of freedom of expression and U.S. foreign policy. They are also out of step with the positions that OIC States accepted to adopt last year at the United Nations.
“The Arab League and OIC proposals are a step backwards in promoting tolerance. The way forward is for governments to take the steps they agreed to last year and to combat hatred without restricting speech,” said Human Rights First’s Joelle Fiss. “The defamation concept was very controversial and hampered cooperation on human rights for over a decade at the U.N. Last year, there was a positive breakthrough when the resolution was dropped, but yesterday’s statements by President Morsi and these other calls to rehash this debate risk scuttling that progress.”
In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly adopted groundbreaking resolutions to address violence, discrimination and incitement to religious hatred without reference to the controversial notion of “defamation of religions.” The move marked an important shift away from efforts at the U.N. to create an international blasphemy code, something that has for the past decade been supported by OIC. Human Rights First has long advocated the reversal of the defamation approach and has encouraged states to combat hatred without restricting speech. Several of the organization’s recommendations were included in the U.N. resolutions.
Earlier this week, President Obama gave a forthright defense of freedom of expression in his remarks to the U.N. General Assembly. Human Rights First urges the United States to stand firm in its position that intolerance can best be confronted without restricting speech and to actively work to defeat measures such as those advocated by the Arab League and OIC. It notes that global anti-blasphemy code or other measures are ostensibly designed to protect religion from defamatory speech. Blasphemy laws at the national level are too easily abused by extremists to persecute religious minorities and to impose ever more restrictive interpretations of religion on the society as a whole. At the outset of his speech this week to the U.N. General Assembly, for example, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari called for a global ban on blasphemy.
Fiss continues, “It’s impossible to expunge offensive material from the Internet. It’s counterproductive for governments to decide what is offensive and what isn’t. Officials who champion these laws should took to Pakistan as a cautionary tale. In Pakistan, these laws get abused to silence dissent, persecute minorities and instigate mob violence. They promote violence and disharmony, and have even led to assassinations of political leaders, handing a powerful tool to the most vocal and extreme elements of society.”
For more information on blasphemy laws see Human Rights First’s report, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions.” To speak with Fiss, please contact Brenda Bowser Soder at email@example.com or 202-370-3323.