If Debate Is Silenced We Risk More Violence in the Name of Religion

States must do more than simply say the right things at the UN; agreeing to Resolution 16/18 is one thing, but the test will be whether it is followed up with action to protect freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief for all people.

In the last few months, the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief have been brought into sharp focus. The tragic Charlie Hebdo murders, and the subsequent attack on a kosher Supermarket in Paris, the copycat Copenhagen shooting, the flogging of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, the murder of atheist blogger Avijit Roy in Bangladesh, the anti-Muslim marches in Germany, the on-going persecution of Muslims in Sri Lanka, the executions of Coptic Christian migrant workers in Libya... the list is depressingly long.

In the face of such violent acts, we have to make sure that freedom of expression doesn't go out of the window in the name of ensuring 'security' or 'stability'; the key role of this right in promoting tolerance, acceptance and dialogue between faiths and belief systems must be consistently reaffirmed. Where open debate is stifled, violence in the name of religion is only more likely.

Currently, this issue is central to the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council, meeting now for the fourth and final week of its 28th Session in Geneva.

In 2011, States came together at the UN Human Rights Council to agree on how to combat intolerance, discrimination or violence against people on the basis of their religion and belief. The result was Resolution 16/18, engineered by Pakistan, Turkey, the United Kingdom and United States of America, which contained concrete commitments to promote the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination, and importantly rejected any reference to "defamation of religions" which had previously divided UN States. On the initiative of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (the OIC), reiterations of the resolution have been passed by consensus at the Human Rights Council every year since.

In real terms, 16/18 calls on states to address intolerance through positive action, such as enacting measures to speak out against intolerance, to establish collaborative networks and to recognise the value of open, constructive and respectful debate. Restricting expression is seen as a last resort, although it requires States to criminalise incitement to violence based on religion or belief. Additional guidance on international norms in this area, such as those provided by the Rabat Plan of Action, also requires States to promote dialogue and limit censorship - including by repealing blasphemy laws.

As the 28th Session reaches its climax, States will this week consider a follow-up to resolution 16/18. After several weeks of negotiation between OIC States on the way forward, a draft text was shared to other UN states late last week that is positive: keeping an emphasis on advancing tolerance through dialogue rather than censorship.

The consensus behind Resolution 16/18 at the international level is important, but this can only truly be strengthened through implementation on the ground. This requires States to lead by example, to turn the rhetoric of the recent solidarity marches in Paris, an initiative in itself in the spirit of 16/18, into concrete action. New Zealand's announcement at the Human Rights Council this session that it will review its blasphemy laws with a view to repealing them is one all States should replicate. Best practices like this must be discussed and shared through the inter-governmental meetings that have been set up to focus on implementation of resolution 16/18, known as the "Istanbul Process".

But too many States are failing to show leadership. Saudi Arabia, which has announced its intention to host an "Istanbul Process" meeting later this year, is at the same time threatening to re-try Raif Badawi for "apostasy", which carries a potential death sentence. We're disappointed that Denmark has opted recently to retain its blasphemy law - a decision that after the Copenhagen attacks should be revisited. Other attempts to shrink civic space, in particular online, seen from the "sedition" crackdown in Malaysia to the spike in social media arrests for supposed "terrorism" offences in France, should similarly be called out as contrary to international law and the promise of resolution 16/18.

What happens in the UN Human Rights Council affects us all. It comes down to what kind of world we want to live in. A world where people are silenced, stigmatised and attacked for their religions or beliefs? Where minority groups are persecuted? Or one where we promote tolerance between communities and encourage dialogue?

States must do more than simply say the right things at the UN; agreeing to Resolution 16/18 is one thing, but the test will be whether it is followed up with action to protect freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief for all people.


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