October 17, 2012
OIC Head Takes Global Blasphemy Ban Off the Table, Member Nations Pursue Policy
Washington, DC – Human Rights First today welcomed the statement by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), affirming the 57-member organization will not seek a global ban on blasphemy or defaming religion through the United Nations. These words should reflect a collective position of all OIC states to abandon efforts to pursue a global ban that would be a major setback for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. “Laws that seek to criminalize offensive speech allow extremists to set the limits of permitted discourse. This results in restrictions on freedom of speech and denial of freedom of religion,” said Human Rights First’s Joelle Fiss. “The OIC’s public recognition that UN member states will not support such a policy is a welcome step. But beyond the corridors of the United Nations, abuses caused by blasphemy laws continue to cause violence and violate fundamental freedoms in many countries. The diplomatic declaration of the OIC Secretary-General at the UN must be translated into real action, to end the violations caused by blasphemy laws.” Human Rights First recently signed a joint declaration with the Muslim Public Affairs Council calling on all governments to condemn hate speech, fight violence and protect freedom of expression. The statement stresses that hate speech against Muslims must be taken seriously and it recognizes that, anti-Muslim prejudices can result in discrimination and even violence against Muslims. Harmful speech should be repudiated by responsible speech, leaving only direct incitement to harm specific groups or individuals being treated as a criminal offense. Furthermore, violence as a response to speech is unacceptable in all circumstances. The statement can be found in English, Arabic and French. Human Rights First notes that governments should resist calls for a global anti-blasphemy code or other measures ostensibly designed to protect religion from defamatory speech. As examples from countries that currently apply blasphemy laws demonstrate, blasphemy laws at the national level are too easily abused by extremists to persecute religious minorities, to crush free speech and to impose even more restrictive interpretations of religion on the society as a whole. These laws empower extremists and stoke sectarian tensions. Despite the OIC secretary general’s declaration that it has abandoned the concept at the UN, some of its 57 member states continue to publicly advocate for such a policy. For example, Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf recently called for a global ban on insulting the Prophet Mohamed. Pakistan is a leading OIC member state. Human Rights First has worked successfully on U.N. resolutions that combat religious intolerance without including the dangerous concept of “defamation of religions,” which often provides cover for abusive national blasphemy laws. In 2011, the U.N. 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 Organization for Islamic Cooperation. 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. “National blasphemy laws are out of step with international norms on freedom of thought and expression. Now, nations with these policies in place should move away from this concept and acknowledge that these laws are not necessary to address the real concerns associated with hate speech. There are alternatives that don’t infringe on personal rights and these are the policies we’ve seen gain traction in recent years,” noted Fiss. More 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 protected] or 202-370-3323.