ARTICLE 19 urges the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) to reject a proposed emergency resolution on “respect for religions and religious symbols” as incompatible with international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.
The IPU’s 132nd Assembly, taking place in Vietnam between 28 March and 1 April, will consider an emergency resolution tabled by Jordan on “respect for religions and religious symbols, respect for freedom of opinion and expression”. The initiative contradicts international standards on freedom of expression, which are clear that restrictions on this right for the protection of religions per se, or to shield the feelings of believers from offence or criticism, are illegitimate.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the draft IPU resolution, if adopted, would legitimise criminal prohibitions on religious insult or so-called “defamation of religions”, and as such also threatens to undermine the crucial consensus achieved at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Resolution 16/18. That landmark 2011 resolution rejected the concept of ‘defamation of religions’ in favour of a consensus and human rights compatible approach to tackling religious intolerance.
On the initiative of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), the HRC will this week likely adopt a follow-up to Resolution 16/18 at its 28th Session, stressing the importance of its implementation. Attempts to undermine the spirit of Resolution 16/18 by introducing concepts akin to ‘defamation of religion’ in other international forums must be resisted.
The Draft IPU Resolution
The draft IPU resolution on its face claims to protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, but simultaneously and incorrectly asserts that this right does “not permit insults against religions or their symbols and followers”. “Religious symbols” is explained as including “prophets, places of worship, and holy books”. While the draft contains vague calls “for the adoption of a vehicle of dialogue”, it says that such dialogue must be undertaken “without insulting the beliefs of others”.
In conclusion, the draft IPU resolution urges the creation of “an international convention to prevent disrespect for religions and religious symbols”.
The explanatory memorandum supplementing the draft IPU resolution does not elaborate on the methods of prevention it envisages. However, the initiative is reminiscent of a 2012 United Arab Emirates IPU proposal calling for the criminalisation of the defamation of religions, which was ultimately rejected after narrowly failing to attract the support of a two-thirds majority.
The draft resolution is entirely against the spirit of Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and international standards on freedom of expression.
False claims of legality
The objective of the draft IPU resolution to push for the creation of an international convention to “prevent” disrespect for religions and religious symbols is one that is incompatible with existing international human rights law instruments.
ARTICLE 19 points to alarming inaccuracies in the explanatory memorandum to the draft IPU resolution, which claim its position is “supported by numerous international covenants stipulating and stressing the need to respect religions and religious symbols” including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This is not correct.
The Human Rights Committee, the treaty monitoring body for the ICCPR, is unambiguous in General Comment No. 34 that “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant”. This position is based on the observation that such laws are often abused to stifle open and critical debates, as well as to discriminate against religious minorities as well as non-believers, a class of people that are excluded by the focus in the draft IPU resolution on “believers”.
The position of the Human Rights Committee has been elaborated in the Rabat Plan of Action, a United Nations OHCHR document that provides authoritative guidance to States on implementing their obligations under Article 20(2) of the ICCPR to prohibit “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. The Rabat Plan of Action is clear that proscription of expression constituting incitement serves a very limited role, and only in the most severe circumstances will criminalisation be considered compatible with international human rights law. The Rabat Plan of Action also contains specific recommendations to parliamentarians as legislators and as public figures. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also relied on the Rabat Plan of Action in formulating recommendations to States on combating intolerance, also stressing the very limited role of restricting freedom of expression.
HRC special procedures, independent experts appointed by States to report and advise on human rights issues, have consistently affirmed that the right to freedom of expression is central to promoting tolerance. Addressing the role of parliamentarians, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief emphasised in his 2014 report to the HRC that “political and religious leaders, as well as civil society organisations, should actively support and encourage an atmosphere of religious tolerance”. He argues that this requires, among other measures, the repeal of blasphemy laws, since they “typically have a stifling effect on open dialogue and public discourse, often particularly affecting persons belonging to religious minorities.”
HRC Resolution 16/18 is wholly compatible with these standards and, together with the Rabat Plan of Action, proposes positive measures States, including parliamentarians, can take to combat religious intolerance.
As an assembly of parliamentarians, the IPU should reflect on the positive role it can play in implementing Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action, including by calling on its members to repeal blasphemy laws, enact comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, and to speak out against instances of intolerance. It should be recognised that the IPU draft resolution is not compatible with international human rights law, or the role of parliaments and their members in upholding these standards.
We call on Jordan, as an OIC member state, to withdraw its regressive proposal to the IPU, and affirm its commitment to the approach outlined in HRC Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action. Should the draft IPU resolution proceed to consideration for adoption, all members should unequivocally reject it.
 A/127/2-P.2, Annex III, 8 October 2012.