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20 April 2011

Defamation of Religions

"The UN is no longer providing legitimacy to national blasphemy laws" Open Doors USA announced after Islamic countries set aside their 12-year campaign to have religions protected from 'defamation'. This has allowed the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to approve a new resolution to promote religious tolerance, "a huge achievement because… it focuses on the protection of individuals rather than religions," says Human Rights First.  

The highly controversial Defamation of Islam resolution was originally tabled in 1999 by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in an attempt to make the defamation of Islam a human rights violation. The UN accepted the proposal, but with the changed title 'Defamation of Religions' to encompass all religions, not just Islam.  

Since then a defamation of religions resolution has been adopted by the HRC each year, but after 2008, support has dwindled. More and more countries have concluded that defamation of religions resolutions were counterproductive to global efforts to combat religious discrimination. This diminishing support and the shocking assassination of two high-ranking Pakistani officials, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, both strong opponents campaigning for the end of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, have prompted the OIC to set aside their campaign for now. However, Reuters has reported diplomats from Islamic countries warning that they will return to campaigning for an international law against religious defamation if Western countries aren't seen to be protecting believers.   

Although defamation of religions resolutions are not binding, they do reflect a common view of the international community. If they become law, governments would have the power to determine which religious views can and cannot be expressed in their country. They would have the right to punish those whom they felt had unacceptable religious views, effectively legalising religious persecution. The resolutions have already provided support to states such as Pakistan and its strict blasphemy law which was discussed in last month's PQ. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said defamation of religions resolutions "provide international cover for domestic blasphemy laws that are easy to abuse…"  Alliance member Open Doors called for an end to the resolutions in their 'Right to Believe' campaign which included a petition of more than 428,000 people saying 'yes' to religious liberty.  

The new Combating Religious Intolerance resolution adopted on 24 March 2011 no longer contains the terms "defamation" or "vilification". A major step forward for religious liberty, some human right advocates see it as the beginning for some countries with blasphemy laws to eliminate them. The new resolution includes approaches that don't limit freedom of expression or freedom of religion, but encourages education and awareness-building to foster a global dialogue for tolerance and peace. 

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that the resolution "properly focuses on protecting individuals from discrimination and violence, instead of protecting religions from criticism". Eddie Lyle, CEO of Open Doors UK, has said the new resolution "appears to be an exceptionally positive move and meets many demands of the Right to Believe campaign".