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Romania hosts 10th International Religious Liberty Association meeting of experts

September 15, 2008 Bucharest, Romania...Religious liberty experts are voicing concerns over proposals to regulate free speech and establish defamation of religions laws.

Meeting in Bucharest, Romania, September 7-10, the 10th conference of the International Religious Liberty Association Board of Experts -- consisting of academics, practitioners and other international experts in the field of human rights and religion -- discussed the emerging issue of hate speech and "defamation of religions."

From left, John Graz, secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association, Viorel Dima, president of the Conscience and Liberty Association, and Bogdan Olteanu, Romania's president of the Chamber of Deputies. The 10th conference of the International Religious Liberty Group of Experts met in Bucharest, Romania, September 8-10.

Opening the conference, John Graz, Secretary-General of IRLA said the "issues surrounding hate speech and defamation of religions have been at the forefront of those concerned with human rights over the last several years and IRLA is seeking an evaluation of the proposals to bring about new international regulatory measures."

As religious individuals and groups around the world find themselves the subject of often vitriolic and malicious accusations and insults, hate speech has at times preceded violent attacks and intimidation. Graz, who is also director of the Seventh-day Adventist world church's department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, asked, "What will be the real cost for freedom of expression if such proposals were to be enacted?"

During the final session, the Board of Experts agreed, according to Graz, "that no specific legislation should be voted, but hate speech should be limited according to the already existing human rights law."

Several experts spoke of existing situations when speech constitutes incitement to violence or discrimination. Such speech may be limited according to existing international human rights law, but experts were concerned that some proposals addressing the issue will not solve the underlying problem of crimes motivated by religious hatred. It will instead increase religious intolerance and infringe the equally fundamental human right of freedom of expression and religion, which includes the critique of religious ideas, they said.

One concern the experts discussed is the lack of a universally acceptable definition of defamation of religions. The experts also expressed concern that any definition will be vague and susceptible to varying interpretations, especially those based on the sensibilities of the hearers. Without clear guidance as to what constitutes defamation, the proposed standards will be arbitrarily and inequitably enforced, and will harm those they are designed to protect, they said.

Referring to hate speech and defamation of religions as a "matter of great concern," Professor Rosa Maria Martinez de Codes from Universidad Complutense, in Madrid, Spain, said that in Europe "we need to build bridges among all the different religious confessions, taking into account that we have about 12 to 13 million [adherents] of Islam.

"Hate speech is something that should be eliminated from our vocabulary, education, attitudes, and that means improving public policies that provide the guidelines for schools -- public and private -- to reinforce a better understanding and respect for the other," Martinez said.

Professor David Little from Harvard Divinity School warned against being silent regarding proposed to the United Nations by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and also some of the UN reports aimed at restricting defamation of religions language.

From left, Lee Boothby, vice president of the International Academy for Freedom of Religious and Belief, David Little, professor at Harvard Divinity School, and Cole Durham, professor at Brigham Young University.

"If we don't take a position in opposition of some of those proposals things would be worse," Little said. "They would be worse because the international organizations, specifically the United Nations, might be inclined to restrict religious speech and thus defeat some of the purposes that we, in this group, believe are enjoyed by allowing more open speech that is criticisms, one religion of another, one religious group within other religious groups, etc., ... If we didn't allow that kind of speech, it's more and more likely that the benefits of free speech would be denied and we would all be worse off."

Professor Cole Durham from Brigham Young University School of Law, believes that there "is a real urgency on the hate speech and defamation of religions. For every bridge being built between the Western world, between Christianity and Islam, there are five being burned, and we need to work with incredible speed because it is much harder to build positive relations, many positive relations can be destroyed in an instant by a simple event, the Danish cartoons.

"Destructive events are much easier to come across and they do much more damage and the restoration work is extraordinary difficult," Durham said.

Durham stated that initiating laws that would prohibit free speech may be aimed at protecting the minority, but actually may be turned against it. Describing it as "the hate speech paradox," Durham explained that "we often think in the law that if something is bad and we pass a law against it, it will automatically disappear as if the law is a magic wand. In fact, we have to think very carefully because all too often, passing those laws will not really help the minority groups because they will be afraid to invoke them; they are afraid that if they do that will just serve as a lightening rod and they will get all the more attacks, they will get all the more threatening phone calls, there all kinds of ways the social opposition can come out."

"You get the opposite of what is intended," Durham added.

Following the meeting, participants of the IRLA conference joined representatives of Romania's Senate and House of Deputies, including Senate President Nicolae Vacaroiu and President of the Chamber of Deputies Bogdan Olteanu, government and religious leaders and academics in a two-day symposium, September 10-11, on "Inter-confessional Communication in European Union."

Rajmund Dabrowski/ANN