Defamation of Religions

General September 23, 2010

September 23, 2010

Dear Brother / Sister,

Through this letter, the Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) would like to draw your attention to a resolution that will be tabled at the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) later this year. As this resolution on the Defamation of Religions could eventually negatively affect many believers all over the world, your help would be greatly appreciated.

Defamation of Religions

A Defamation of Religions resolution, introduced by Pakistan in 1999 at the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights will be taken up once again at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in November 2010.

Since 2005, when the resolution was first tabled at the UNGA,  the resolution has been proposed twice a year, in the spring at the Human Rights Council, and in the autumn at the UNGA. To date, all proposals for the resolution have been adopted. However, over time, the support has been declining and since 2008 the number of ‘no’ votes and abstentions have outnumbered those votes in favour of the resolution.

What is wrong with the resolution?

Of course, we are not advocating for defamatory statements on any religion or belief system. Nevertheless, we do not support the Defamation of Religions resolution for a number of reasons.

1. Human Rights treaties so far have been to protect the individual rather than ideas or a group of people. As soon as human rights treaties start to protect groups of people rather than the individual, the rights of individuals - especially those belonging to a minority group, are at risk of being seriously limited.

2. Further, the concept blurs the distinction between religion and race. A person can and has the right to change his or her religion or belief. Race, however, is immutable. Race is about a person’s biology, religion is about ideals and ideas. “Several religions are characterized by truth claims — or even by superiority claims — which have been traditionally accepted as part of their theological grounds. Consequently, the elements that constitute a racist statement may not be the same as those that constitute a statement ‘defaming a religion’ as such. To this extent, the legal measures, and in particular

the criminal measures, adopted by national legal systems to fight racism may not necessarily be applicable to defamation of religions”.[1]

3. When blasphemy of religion becomes prohibited by international law, the state has to take the role of a theologian by determining which religious viewpoints may be expressed. Therefore the state, through the courts or a judge, will determine whether a statement (for example) about the prophet Mohammed, defames Islam. In doing this, the state will be called upon to judge the truth of religious beliefs and claims and determine which interpretations of a religion are valid.

4. Existing international laws already contain limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, to protect the interests of the state in maintaining public order or preventing incitement to violence. Existing laws already sufficiently protect religious persons from assault, incitement to violence, arson, murder and other forms of intimidation or endangerment.[2]

Possible Impact

Resolutions adopted by the UNGA and HRC are not legally binding, but they do reflect a common perspective and at least a majority of the international community on the issue. It will therefore provide support to states that have already codified anti-blasphemy laws in their national legislation.

The establishment of a Defamation of Religions prohibition in international law potentially criminalises defamation, including strong criticism of religions - particularly of Islam, and legitimises national anti-blasphemy laws. It will have the effect of severely restricting the fundamental freedom of religion and belief, and the right to change one’s religion or belief, as provided for under article 18 of the ICCPR.

Laws that prohibit blasphemy of religions will not only miss their aim to protect individuals from being offended but ‘will empower the majority against dissenters and the state against individuals’.[3] The vague concept is likely to be abused by governments to suppress minority religious individuals and dissenting voices. In Pakistan, for example, ‘Authorities routinely used blasphemy laws to harass religious minorities and vulnerable Muslims and to settle personal scores or business rivalries.’[4]

WEA RLC actions and your possible involvement

The WEA Religious Liberty Commission is officially accredited to the United Nations and actively lobbying against the Defamation of Religions Resolution, both at the HRC in Geneva, Switzerland, and at the UNGA in New York, United States of America.

We would greatly appreciate your help in contacting your government to discuss their voting at the UN on the defamation of religions resolution. If you would kindly provide WEA RLC commissioner Arie de Pater ([email protected]) with a contact in your government who is dealing with UN related matters and the defamation of religions resolution, it will be help us to lobby their vote.

Besides providing contact details of your government, you might want to contact your government officials yourself. If so, do not hesitate to contact either Mr. Arie de Pater or me, for further information.

Thanking you.

In anticipation of your swift response,

Yours sincerely,

Godfrey Yogarajah
Executive Director
World Evangelical Alliance – Religious Liberty Commission

20th September 2010

[1] Joint statement of three UN Special Rapporteurs, 22 April 2009: Freedom of expression and incitement to racial or religious hatred.

[2] Becket Fund: UN efforts to pass a Binding International Blasphemy Law, 2010. Also the two reports by a standing body of experts on racism and experts on human rights came to the same conclusion.

[3] Becket Fund Issues Brief, June 2008, page 6.

[4] United States’ Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2009. “Pakistan” assessed at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127370.htm.



[1] Joint statement of three UN Special Rapporteurs, 22 April 2009: Freedom of expression and incitement to racial or religious hatred.

[2] Becket Fund: UN efforts to pass a Binding International Blasphemy Law, 2010. Also the two reports by a standing body of experts on racism and experts on human rights came to the same conclusion.

[3] Becket Fund Issues Brief, June 2008, page 6.

[4] United States’ Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2009. “Pakistan” assessed at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127370.htm.