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Statement of Concern about Proposals Regarding Defamation of Religions

Board of Experts of the International Religious Liberty Association
Silver Spring, MD/Washington, DC
September 3, 2009


The issue of defamation of religions1 has been of great concern to those involved with the protection of human rights and especially religious freedom. Religious individuals and groups around the world find themselves the subject of hostile accusations and insults, which at times precede intimidation and violent attacks.

Recognizing the link between certain forms of hateful expression and harmful actions, international, regional and national institutions, as well as non-governmental organizations, have sought to address the real concerns that such expression can cause. These have been addressed in a number of ways, from increased prosecution of those that target religious individuals and groups, to the passage of special laws increasing the penalties for crimes motivated by religious animus.

Another suggested approach is the regulation and prohibition of what is often called “defamation of religions.” The experts recognize that situations exist when expression constitutes incitement to discrimination or violence. Such speech may be limited according to existing international human rights law.2 But the experts are concerned that some proposals addressing this issue will not solve the underlying problem of crimes against person or property motivated by religious hatred, but will instead increase religious intolerance and infringe the equally fundamental human rights of freedom of expression and religion, which allow for the critique of religious beliefs and practices.

Examples of Problematic Proposals

Particularly problematic have been resolutions and other documents approved or being considered in the United Nations settings that call upon States to take resolute action to prohibit the dissemination of ideas and material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitute incitement to racial and religious hatred, hostility, or violence.3

Reasons for Concern

The experts find themselves in agreement with certain goals of many of these proposals, to prevent religiously based discrimination and violence. However, the proposed methods are troubling for several reasons, and will likely exacerbate rather than resolve tensions between religions in society and the world.

The experts are concerned that the proposed restrictions on the defamation of religions:

  1. will interfere with the core religious right of evaluating, comparing, and exchanging religious beliefs and practices. This right is fundamental for developing a free and informed conscientious choice regarding matters of religion and belief. This would not only limit media coverage and advocacy, but also scholarship concerning religious issues and the teaching or honest debate of competing religious philosophies.
  2. will interfere with the freedom of speech and expression. Regulating speech beyond existing international human rights law is a troubling enterprise at best, and often produces results opposite from those intended. Defamation of religions initiatives may even threaten the use of their own scriptures or other sacred texts by some religious traditions. The experts believe that the right to religion and belief, and the right to free expression, are mutually interconnected. We agree that “the right to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined in relevant international legal standards, does not include the right to have a religion or belief that is free from criticism or ridicule.”4
  3. can be used by dominant groups to repress the rights of vulnerable individuals and groups. Dominant groups in society will generally have greater access to and influence with the courts and state agencies that enforce these laws. It will often be the dominant groups’ interests that are best represented, while the less powerful may lack effective access to justice, and may even fear to assert their rights. Such laws may be especially inhospitable to local or indigenous religions or to newly introduced faiths or beliefs.
  4. may also impair the rights of all religious groups by strengthening the power of the state to interfere in religious matters. All too often defamation of religions initiatives can be used by states to control, manage, or marginalize any or all religious groups. They can open a door for governments to exploit religious groups for political purposes.
  5. will suffer from vagueness and a lack of enforceable standards. The experts note the lack of any universally acceptable definition of defamation of religions. Further, we fear that any definition will be vague, unduly subjective, and susceptible to varying interpretations and applications. This will all too often result in arbitrary state enforcement and preference for dominant religions.


The IRLA Group of Experts makes the following recommendations:

  1. Proposals for laws relating to the defamation of religions or analogous concepts should be rejected. The experts believe that current national, regional, and international laws and standards are sufficient to protect against speech that results in discrimination or violence.
  2. Where laws pertaining to defamation of religions have already been passed, their implementation should be closely monitored to gain a better understanding of their impact, problems in their application, their effectiveness in deterring violence and discrimination, and any counterproductive consequences.
  3. Laws pertaining to incitement to violence or discrimination against religions and beliefs should contain concrete and measurable standards. Further, they should assure that all religious groups are protected, and be neutral among religions and beliefs, both in their drafting and in their application.
  4. The United Nations should continue to support dialogue on this issue with as wide a group of interested parties as possible, including representatives from States, religious bodies, non-governmental organizations and other interested parties. Specific methodologies should be developed to bridge differing cultural approaches to religious disagreements and insensitivities.
  5. Government, educational, civic, media, religious and other leaders should promote and encourage via education and other means, understanding, tolerance, respect, and friendship. They should communicate a message of ethical responsibility, reminding all people that not everything that can lawfully be said should be said. We endorse the view of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, that we should “focus on creating a tolerant and inclusive environment in which all religions and beliefs may be exercised free of discrimination or stigmatization, within reasonable limits. The situation will not be remedied by preventing ideas about religions from being expressed.”5




1In this document, “defamation of religions” is used to describe proposals, such as those supported by UN resolutions in recent years, to protect religious beliefs, scriptures, symbols, and leaders, living or dead, from adverse comment or critique, that could offend the religious feelings and sensibilities of believers. The phrase does not include standard defamation laws that protect the reputational interests of persons or institutions, religious or otherwise, from factually erroneous and demonstrably damaging statements.

2See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Sections 18, 19, and 20.

3The issue of defamation of religions was first presented to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in a draft resolution submitted by Pakistan in 1999 on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. U.N. Econ. & Soc. Council [ESOSOC], Comm’n on Human Rights, Draft Res.: Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and all Forms of Discrimination, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1999/L.40 (April 20, 1999). Similar resolutions were adopted every year by the Human Rights Commission from 1999-2005. Comm’n on Human Rights Res. 2000/84 of 26 April 2000; 2001/4 of 18 April 2001; 2002/9 of 15 April 2002; 2003/4 of 14 April 2003; 2004/6 of 13 April 2004; 2005/3 of 12 April 2005. Thereafter, resolutions on this topic have been adopted by the Human Rights Council. HRC Res. 4/9 of 30 March 2007; HRC Res. 7/19 of 27 March 2008. Commencing in 2005, the U.N. General Assembly began adopting similar resolutions. G.A. Res. 60/150 of 16 December 2005; G.A. Res. 61/164 of 19 December 2006; G.A. Res. 62/154 of 18 December 2007; G.A. Res. 63/171 of 18 December 2008.

4Asma Jahangir, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and Doudou Diene, the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Joint Report, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/2/3 (20 September 2006), para. 36.

5Id., para. 66.