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Open Letter: The Concept of Defamation of Religions Undermines Human Rights

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‚ÄúDefamation‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúDenigration‚ÄĚ of Religions at the 16th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council

Letter from Civil Society Organizations to State Representatives

9 March 2011


We are writing to you to strongly urge your government to actively engage in the negotiations on the resolution on ‚Äúcombating defamation of religions‚ÄĚ/‚ÄĚcombating religious hatred and denigration of religions‚ÄĚ at the 16th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (‚Äúthe Council‚ÄĚ) that is currently taking place.¬† Specifically, we urge your government to vote against any resolution which refers to ‚Äúdefamation of religions‚ÄĚ or similar terms such as ‚Äúvilification‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúdenigration‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúdefamation‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúdenigration of religions‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúdefamation of religions‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúdefamation of religions‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúcombating defamation of religions‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúcombating defamation of religions‚ÄĚ 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) ‚Äď 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 ‚Äúcombating defamation of religions‚ÄĚ/‚ÄĚcombating religious hatred and denigration of religions‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúcombating defamation of religions‚ÄĚ submitted to the 65th session of the UN General Assembly‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúdefamation‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúdenigration‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúvenerated personalities‚ÄĚ 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.



1.    Adil Soz РInternational Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
2.    Ain o Shalish Kendra, Bangladesh
3.    Al Haq, Occupied Palestinian Territory
4.    Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN-Burma)
5.    Amnesty International
6.    Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, Egypt
7.    Arab Foundation for Civil Society and Human Rights Support, Egypt
8.    Arab Organization for Human Rights, Syria
9.    Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Egypt
10.    ARTICLE 19
11.    Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
12.    Asian Legal Resource Centre
13.    Association of Caribbean Media Workers
14.    Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, Egypt
15.    Association of Independent Electronic Media
16.    Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons
17.    Baha’i International Community
18.    Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Bahrain
19.    Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha, India
20.    Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
21.    The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Cambodia
22.    Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
23.    Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
24.    Center for Media Studies & Peace Building
25.    Centre for Independent Journalism
26.    Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, Argentina
27.    Christian Development Alternative, Bangladesh
28.    CIVICUS, South Africa
29.    Committees for the Defense of Democracy Freedom and Human Rights, Syria
30.    Common Concern, India
31.    Democracy Coalition Project, USA
32.    Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, Philippines
33.    East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project
34.    Egyptian Center for the Rights of the Child, Egypt
35.    Egyptian Foundation for Advancement of the Childhood Condition, Egypt
36.    Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights, Egypt
37.¬†¬†¬† Ethiopian Freepress Journalists’ Association, Ethiopia
38.    Fahamu Refugee Programme, United Kingdom
39.    Freedom Forum
40.    Freedom House
41.    Freedom of Expression Institute
42.    Free Media Movement
43.    Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Philippines
44.    Globe International, Mongolia
45.    Habi Center for Environmental Rights, Egypt
46.¬†¬†¬† HRWG – Indonesia’s NGO Coalition for International Human Rights advocacy, Indonesia
47.    Human Rights First, USA
48.    Human Rights First Society, Saudi Arabia
49.    Human Rights Network for Journalists
50.    Human Rights Organization in Syria РMAF
51.    Human Rights Watch
52.    Human Security Alliance, Thailand
53.    The Inclusive Development Action, Viet Nam
54.    Index on Censorship
55.¬†¬†¬† Indigenous People’s International Centre for Policy Research and Education (Tebtebba), Philippines
56.    The Indonesian Human Rights Monitor (IMPARSIAL), Indonesia
57.    INFORM Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka
58.    INHURED International, Nepal
59.    Initiative for Freedom of Expression
60.¬†¬†¬† Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety
61.    Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information
62.    Institute of Mass Information
63.    Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela
64.    International Federation of Journalists
65.    International Catholic Center of Geneva
66.    International Movement Against All Forms of Racism and Discrimination
67.    International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development, Indonesia
68.    International Press Institute
69.    Iraqi Human Rights Organization, Denmark
70.    The Jurist Association, United Arab Emirates
71.    Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Association, Cambodia
72.    Kurdish Committee for Human Rights-Rased, Syria
73.    Kurdish organization for the defense of human rights and public freedoms in Syria- DAD
74.    Land Center for Human Rights, Egypt
75.    Law and Society Trust, Sri Lanka
76.    Maharat Foundation (Skills Foundation)
77.    Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
78.    Media Foundation for West Africa
79.    Media Rights Agenda
80.    Media Watch
81.    National Commission for Justice and Peace, Pakistan
82.    National Organization for Human Rights, Syria
83.    Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organization, Nepal
84.    New Zealand National Refugee Network, New Zealand
85.    Norwegian PEN
86.¬†¬†¬† Observatoire pour la libert√© de presse, d’√©dition et de creation
87.    Pacific Freedom Forum
88.    Pacific Islands News Association
89.    Partners for Law in Development, India
90.    Partnership for Justice and Human Rights Agenda, Nigeria
91.    Pax Romana РInternational Catholic Movement of Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, Switzerland
92.    Pax Romana РInternational Movement of Catholic Students, France
93.¬†¬†¬† People’s Union for Civil Liberties, India
94.    People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, India
95.¬†¬†¬† People’s Watch, India
96.    Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, Philippines
97.    Programme Against Custodial Torture & Impunity, India
98.    Refugee Council of Australia, Australia
99.    Rights, India
100.    Salmmah Women Resource Center, Sudan
101.    SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom (Samir Kassir Eyes)
102.    Southeast Asian Press Alliance
103.    Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), MALAYSIA
104.    Sudan Social Development Organization
105.    Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, Philippines
106.    Thai Committee for Refugees, Thailand
107.    The Other Media, India
108.    Think Centre, Singapore
109.    Yemeni Observatory for Human Rights
110.    West African Human Rights Defenders Project
111.    The Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN
112.    World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
113.    World Press Freedom Committee