ARTICLE 19 welcomes the adoption by consensus of the resolution on “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief” by the Human Rights Council (HRC) at its 28th Session. We emphasise the “urgent need” for implementation by States, in line with the international standards set out in the Rabat Plan of Action.
“The UN’s highest human rights body has reaffirmed that addressing religious intolerance, discrimination and violence is best achieved through open debate, where the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief are both fully protected,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.
“In light of recent events, this resolution is an important reminder to States that freedom of expression should not go out of the window in the name of ‘security’ or ‘unity’, but rather dialogue should be central to the promotion of tolerance”, Hughes added.
The resolution (A/HRC/28/L.4) was tabled by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, and was adopted without a vote by the 47-member Council. It follows Resolution 16/18, the landmark 2011 agreement that replaced calls to combat the deeply problematic concept of ‘defamation of religions’ with commitments to address religious intolerance through promoting the related rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination. Reiterations of the resolution have been adopted by consensus at the Council every year since.
Importantly, the resolution repeats its call on States to engage in a comprehensive eight-part action plan to combat religious intolerance. Those measures are, inter alia:
- Encourage the creation of collaborative networks to build mutual understanding promoting dialogue and inspiring constructive action in various fields, including media education;
- Create an appropriate mechanism within Governments to, inter alia, identify and address potential areas of tension between members of different religious communities, and assisting with conflict prevention and mediation;
- Encourage the training of government officials in effective outreach strategies;
- Encouraging the efforts of leaders to discuss within their communities the causes of discrimination, and evolving strategies to counter these causes;
- Speak out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence;
- Recognise that the open, constructive and respectful debate of ideas can play a positive role in combating religious hatred, incitement and violence;
- Encourage the representation and meaningful participation of individuals, irrespective of their religion in all sectors of society.
- Adopt measures to criminalise incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.
Additional guidance for States
The Rabat Plan of Action provides a detailed and comprehensive roadmap to tackling the most serious forms of intolerance and hatred, and should guide States in their implementation of the resolution. Importantly, it calls for the repeal of blasphemy laws due to their stifling impact on freedom of expression, and outlines that prohibitions on “incitement” are a last resort measure reserved for the most extreme cases, and require specific safeguards to prevent against their abuse. Further, it stresses positive policy measures, including for political leaders and the media, to promote pluralism and diversity to counter intolerance.
States should also draw upon the extensive work of the HRC special procedures in identifying concrete and practical recommendations to combat religious intolerance. Independent experts have repeatedly emphasised that combating religious intolerance requires full protection for freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, and warned against abusive legal frameworks that stifle open and frank debate, in particular for religious minorities and non-believers.
Guided by these objective sources, grounded in international human rights law, States should be able to avoid what Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, described in the debate preceding the adoption of the resolution as “double standards” and “selectivity” in the defence of freedom of expression.
Implementation is crucial
The resolution additionally calls for the “urgent need to implement” all parts of this action plan, and requests the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to present a report based on information provided by States in this regard to the HRC at its 34th Session in March 2017, one year later than originally proposed by the OIC.
“States must take full advantage of the extra year they have in this next reporting cycle to ensure they lead by example and take concrete measures to fully protect the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, in line with Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action” said Hughes.
“Discussion is no substitute for action; implementation of this resolution is crucial. Sharing experience in this regard, through OHCHR reporting as well as through the Istanbul Process, is an essential long-term investment that States must make to ensure that consensus on this resolution is deepened and a return to earlier divisions avoided,” Hughes stressed.
OHCHR’s most recent report on implementation of the action plan first set out in Resolution 16/18 only received 15 responses from States. The reporting process is not open to other stakeholders, such as national human rights institutions or civil society, a weakness that ARTICLE 19 has previously criticised.
The additional time bought by the last minute changes to the resolution also gives States the opportunity to reinvigorate the Istanbul Process, the series of inter-governmental meetings that exist as a forum for sharing experiences and best practices on implementing resolution 16/18.
Both Saudi Arabia and Chile have announced their intention to host Istanbul Process meetings in 2015. The success of these meetings will depend upon their ability to drive implementation and action on the measures outlined in the resolution. This would be greatly enhanced by including the participation of all stakeholders, including civil society.
ARTICLE 19 encourages States from other UN regional groups to host Istanbul Process meetings for 2016, to ensure implementation of this important resolution receives sustained attention over the coming two years.
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, A/HRC/28/64, 2 January 2015; Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, A/HRC/28/66, 29 December 2014; Report of the Special Rapporteur on protecting and promoting the right to freedom of opinion and expression, A/67/357, 7 September 2012