"Defamation" and "denigration" of religions at the 16th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Right Honourable Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A2

March 10, 2011

Dear Prime Minister,

The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) is one of over 100 organizations of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange network (IFEX) calling on the UN Human Rights Council to reject “defamation” and “denigration” of religions. We strongly urge the Canadian government to actively engage in the negotiations on the resolution on "combating defamation of religions"/"combating religious hatred and denigration of religions" at the 16th Session of the UN Human Rights Council ("the Council") that is currently taking place. Specifically, we urge your government to vote against any resolution which refers to "defamation of religions" or similar terms such as "vilification" and "denigration" of religions and religious symbols, and support a resolution which omits such terms and focuses on freedom of expression, freedom of religion and non-discrimination in ways that properly reflect international human rights standards.

This approach would reflect the growing consensus that has emerged at the UN General Assembly and the Council over the past two years that the concept of "defamation" or "denigration of religions" is counterproductive to global efforts to combat discrimination against religious minorities and serves to entrench repression and violence against non-believers, members of religious minorities and political dissidents. As highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of religion or belief and contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in their Joint Statement at the Durban Review Conference in 2009, laws prohibiting "defamation of religions" and/or blasphemy are regularly relied on to justify discrimination, repression and violence against religious minorities. There is also a growing consensus that the concept of "defamation of religions" and similar terminology undermines and distorts existing international human rights guarantees on freedom of expression, freedom of religion and non-discrimination. International human rights law does not and should not protect religions per se, but does and should protect individuals and groups from discrimination, violence and hostility on the basis of their religion. Religious beliefs, ideas and systems should not be exempt from discussion, debate or even sharp criticism, whether from internal or external commentators.

Furthermore, debates surrounding UN resolutions on "combating defamation of religions" have been amongst the most polarizing at the UN and have had the effect of stalling international cooperation on other human rights issues. It is therefore necessary that States make concerted efforts at this Council session to renegotiate the terms of the resolution on "combating defamation of religions" and forge a consensus around a resolution which reflects international human rights law - including existing language as contained in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - and which presents a robust international response to tackling discrimination against individuals and groups on religious grounds.

Your delegation has a key role to play in the forthcoming negotiations to renegotiate the deeply-contested resolution on "combating defamation of religions"/"combating religious hatred and denigration of religions" and to realise a consensus resolution that both addresses religious discrimination and reflects international human rights standards.

In keeping with the reports of the Secretary-General on "combating defamation of religions" submitted to the 65th session of the UN General Assembly's Third Committee and of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance submitted to the 15th session of the Council, we urge your delegation to:

• Reject any reference to "defamation" or "denigration" of religions, religious symbols and persons, whether in the title or text of any proposed resolution on this issue;
• Promote language which properly reflects international human rights law, in particular relevant Articles of the UDHR and ICCPR;
• Reject any wording which seeks to protect religions, religious beliefs, symbols or "venerated personalities" from criticism;
• Promote language that protects individual religious believers, secularists and religious minorities who face discrimination, hostility or violence because of their actual or perceived religion or beliefs or lack thereof;
• Promote the full implementation of international human rights law on the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion and non-discrimination and the development of strategies by the Human Rights Council to promote intercultural and inter-religious dialogue.

We thank you for your attention and I look forward to your reply.

Yours Sincerely,

Arnold Amber, CJFE President

A full list of the signatories, which include over 100 rights organizations, are available on the IFEX website.