UN freedom of religion or belief expert calls for repeal of blasphemy laws

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief to the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), calling on States to address persistent “implementation gaps” in States’ compliance with international human rights standards, including by repealing blasphemy laws. 

In an oral statement to the HRC during the interactive dialogue on the report, ARTICLE 19 outlined that the rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are mutually reinforcing, and that States must lead by example in acting to protect both rights.

The report of Ahmed Shaheed, his first as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, sets out an ambitious agenda to focus on the implementation of existing international human rights standards. Among these standards, he cites ARTICLE 19’s Camden Principles on freedom of expression and equality, the eight-point action plan of HRC Resolution 16/18, and the Rabat Plan of Action.

Ahead of the 34th Session of the HRC, ARTICLE 19 launched a guide for stakeholders on the importance of the Istanbul Process on the implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18, and the relevance of the Rabat Plan of Action and the Camden Principles to this. During the interactive dialogue, we reiterated our call on States to build on the progress of the 6th Istanbul Process meeting held in Singapore in 2016, by leading by example in implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18, and making the Istanbul Process more visible, transparent, introspective and inclusive.

Identifying challenges to the implementation agenda in his report, the Special Rapporteur identified a triple threat to freedom of religion or belief that equally endangers freedom of expression. This comes from violence in the name of religion, the rise in discriminatory political populism that scapegoats diversity, and States’ “securitisation of rights” in response to violent extremism.

ARTICLE 19 observes that these trends reflect concerns previously raised by UN and regional freedom of expression mandate holders. In their 2016 Joint Declaration, they condemned violent extremists’ targeting of religion or belief minorities for their expression, and also raised concern that efforts by States to prevent violent extremism may undermine freedom of expression. Their 2017 Joint Declaration, responding to “fake news”, emphasises that some forms of disinformation and propaganda may incite violence, discrimination, and hostility against minority groups. They assert that this phenomenon is best countered through greater media independence and pluralism, protections for freedom of expression online, and greater media literacy.

To address these issues, the Special Rapporteur outlines a number of practical actions States must take to implement their international human rights obligations, including:

  • States must prevent, protect against, and prosecute murders and attacks against religion or belief minorities, including atheists, for expressing themselves online;
  • States must repeal blasphemy laws, in recognition that people are rights holders, while religions are not, as recommended by the UN Human Rights Committee and cited in the Rabat Plan of Action;
  • States must ensure that any prohibitions on the advocacy of discriminatory hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence comply with international human rights law, and are only applied as an exceptional and last resort measure, in line with the guidance in the Rabat Plan of action.

ARTICLE 19 congratulates the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief on his first report, and looks forward to working in support of the mandate to address the “implementation gaps” he has identified.

Read the Special Rapporteur’s report

Read ARTICLE 19’s Oral Statement to HRC34 on freedom of religion and belief