By Tad Stahnke
Human Rights First
On March 22, a Malaysian human rights group called Sisters in Islam was hit with a lawsuit asking it to remove the reference to Islam in their name because it defames Islam. According to press reports, Sisters in Islam have offended conservative groups by criticizing Shariah laws that allow the caning of women. They recently tried to stop the Malaysian authorities from caning three Muslim women who had extramarital sex. This is but one recent example of how a religious defamation law has been abused to suppress the exercise of fundamental rights.
Last year in Afghanistan, the Fatwa department of the Afghani Supreme Court recommended that two journalists, Aftab chief editor Mer-hossin Mahdaw and Ali Raza Payam, be executed for publishing a cartoon depicting a monkey evolving into a man slumped over a computer screen with the words, “Government plus religion equals cruelty.” The piece was deemed blasphemous because it showed humans evolving from apes. In its ruling, the Court stated, “The Islamic Transitional Government of Afghanistan is obliged to give the death penalty to the people who have abused or made fun of Islam…” In 2007 in Pakistan, several Christian nurses were prosecuted on blasphemy charges for allegedly drawing lines through Qur’anic verses.
In each of these cases – and in numerous other examples unearthed by U.N. experts each year – blasphemy and “defamation of religion” laws have resulted in arrests and arbitrary detentions, as they have sparked assaults, murders and mob attacks. Journalists, bloggers, teachers, students, poets, religious converts and others are targeted, charged and sentenced for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Those who support “defamation of religions” law say these policies are necessary to combat incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, as well as to protect freedom of religion. But the facts tell a very different story, one that has resulted in eroding international support for this flawed concept.
Last month, as the United Nations Human Rights Council met in Geneva, it became increasingly clear that the tide is swiftly turning against support for “defamation of religions.” As it has since 1999, UN States from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) sponsored a resolution endorsing the concept that nations have an obligation to implement laws against the “defamation of religions.” Although the text squeezed through to its adoption, that was only by a small margin of three votes — it was 12 votes last year — and a growing number of UN States voted against the measure and many nations that had previously abstained from the debate spoke out in opposition to the resolution’s passage. Human Rights First and other organizations that have closely following this debate hailed the vote and the signal it sends as a significant victory for the protection of freedom of expression.
This weakening UN Human Rights Council support for the defamation of religions was also evident in a second resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on the “Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards” that has been charged to identify new methods to combat racism. That resolution’s final text did not include any defamation of religions language and there was no authorization for the Ad Hoc committee to codify defamation of religions into a binding international treaty.
What happened last month in Geneva demonstrates that the UN is moving in the right direction with regard to abandoning the concept of “defamation of religions.” Turning away from this divisive debate that seeks to limit basic freedoms could provide more time for UN States to focus on a more pro-active agenda – one that can result in practical measures that can be implemented to confront widespread hatred and religious intolerance. In Geneva, Human Rights First met with diplomats representing a wide range of countries from different regions and legal traditions who expressed unanimous support for advancing effective ways to fight religious intolerance and racism without restricting free speech. The effort to pass binding ‘defamation of religions’ language should be abandoned in favor of advancing effective measures to fight the rise of religious intolerance around the globe without sacrificing human rights. That is the next challenge for the Human Rights Council to pick up.
Tad Stahnke is Director of Policy and Programs at Human Rights First.