Press releases & protests
For Immediate Release
Contact: Mark Bench, 703.715.9811
WPFC ISSUES STATEMENT ON PROPOSAL TO CURTAIL SPEECH
Reston, USA, Oct. 2, 2008 — The World Press Freedom Committee (www.wpfc.org) —an umbrella organization representing 45 press freedom groups throughout the world— issued a strongly worded statement criticizing a discussion topic that is to begin today that would curtail freedom of religion. This meeting will occur today at an experts’ seminar under the auspices of the Geneva-based United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It is the strong view of the WPFC that this proposal —presented under the guise of “defamation of religion” and introduced by the 57-member-state Organization of the Islamic Conference— constitutes an unacceptable attempt to curtail freedom of expression throughout the world, especially in countries that lack an official religion.
“Recent discussions of ‘Defamation of Religion’,” reads the WPFC statement, “have assumed that freedom of expression is simply one value to be balanced among many others, and specifically that, in matters of religion, it can properly be limited if a significant number of people would otherwise be angered or offended by it. That view, however, is totally unacceptable to many member states, for which freedom of expression is central to their entire system of governance.”
The proposal will be introduced during the seminar to be held Oct. 2 and 3 in Geneva. Here is the full text of the WPFC statement:
The proposed discussion on combating the Defamation of Religions is ill-conceived because, as set forth below, it seeks to promulgate a norm of international law on a point where no genuine consensus exists among the member states. Because the proposal would be violative of the fundamental constitutional laws of a number of member states, it would inevitably be unenforceable and counterproductive.
It is well settled that international law based on treaties or conventions derives its authority from “rules expressly recognized by the contesting states,” and that the validity of customary international law is based upon “general practice accepted as law” by all major states as well. It is indeed true that there is broad international agreement on the existence of a right to freedom of expression and information, as reflected for example in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Similarly, there is wide agreement that all persons have a right to be free from religious persecution and discrimination. The proposal under discussion, however, goes far beyond these general principles, and raises issues which are the subject of sharply conflicting views among member states of the United Nations.
Recent discussions of “Defamation of Religion” have assumed that freedom of expression is simply one value to be balanced among many others, and specifically that, in matters of religion, it can properly be limited if a significant number of people would otherwise be angered or offended by it. That view, however, is totally unacceptable to many member states, for which freedom of expression is central to their entire system of governance.
In the United States, for example, the Supreme Court has stated that freedom of expression is “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom” and is “fundamental to our scheme of individual liberty.” More recently, the same Court has reaffirmed that “[o]ur political system and cultural life rest upon this ideal.” (Because of space limitations, the following discussion is largely focused on U.S. examples, but similar concerns have been raised in many other nations as well. Thus, e.g., the European Court of Human Rights recently set aside a judgment imposing nominal damages for religious defamation based upon harsh criticisms of the Catholic Church; in its decision, the Court noted that “freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society,” and that such freedom must be extended to the expression of views “that offend, shock, or disturb.” Similar concerns have been expressed, with respect to this issue, by the Presidency of the European Union and by Non-Governmental Organizations in a number of countries. )
Because of the fundamental role played by freedom of expression in the entire Constitutional system, U.S. courts have consistently held that such freedom extends even to expression which is “hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion”, and to speech and writings which are “gross and repugnant in the eyes of most.” Thus it has been held that freedom of expression extends to demonstrators burning the American flag, to Nazis seeking to march through a predominantly Jewish community, and even to publication of classified military documents during wartime.
The courts have expressly refused to exclude “outrageous” speech from Constitutional protection, on the ground that such a subjective standard would permit excessive encroachments on the protected freedoms. While recognizing that offensive speech can cause anger and civil unrest, the U.S. has based its Constitutional system on the belief that “repression breeds hate,” that “hate menaces stable government,” and that the “path of safety” lies in the free and open discussion of grievances. Specifically, such Constitutional protection has been extended to offensive criticisms of religion, including attacks on Christianity, which is the majority religion in the United States.
For similar reasons, any proposed “links between Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR,” as formulated in the heading of the Concept Paper, would be seriously problematic for member states which regard freedom of expression as a fundamental Constitutional principle. The United States, for example, only ratified the ICCPR with a reservation on Article 20 as being contrary to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That reservation was stipulated by the U.S. Senate, a two-thirds vote of which would be required for United States entry into any treaty obligation. Member states which adhere to similar constitutional principles obviously could not accept the proposed resolution. Similarly, such states would refuse to enforce foreign judgments based on that concept of defamation of religion.
Thus, it is clear that the proposal could not achieve the broad consensus of support necessary for recognition as a rule of international law. Further, it would present practical problems which would render it not only unenforceable, but also counterproductive. For example, the recent controversy over the publication of certain allegedly offensive cartoons in a Danish newspaper was actually escalated by the existence in Denmark of a group defamation law; the refusal by Danish authorities to prosecute under that statute greatly broadened the affair, which had begun as a private dispute between a single newspaper and a group of offended readers, into a major international confrontation. It also, ironically, led to much wider publication of the cartoons, which were reprinted by many news publications simply as a part of reporting the controversy, and by others as a gesture of support for freedom of expression.
These problems with any proposal concerning “defamation of religion” would be further exacerbated because it would involve largely subjective issues of interpretation. Would claims of superiority or of exclusive truth, made by a number of world religions, be considered to “defame” other religions by denying their validity? Could (for example) Islamic strictures against polytheism and idolatry be considered “defamatory” by some followers of Hinduism or of various traditional and indigenous religions? Could religious leaders' denunciations of atheism or secularism be considered “defamatory” by secular humanists, who are quite numerous in some member states?
Could condemnations of “proselytism” or “abusive proselytism,” as referred to in the Concept Paper, be considered “defamatory” by adherents of religious groups which consider proselytism to be an obligation? The very concept of “defamation of religion” would appear to be unworkable in a diverse international community.
The current discussions raise other conceptual problems as well. For example, since “defamation” is traditionally an offense against a person or entity with a recognized legal personality, is it even juristically possible to “defame” an entire religion?
All member states of the United Nations undoubtedly share the goal of promoting tolerance and respect for all religions. However, there are available alternatives, such as education and interfaith dialogue, which advance that goal more effectively without creating the legal and practical problems discussed above. And, of course, most member states already have in place legal sanctions against actual religious discrimination, persecution, or incitement to violence.
In summary, the fundamental obstacle to any norm of international law concerning “defamation of religion” is illustrated by the Concept Paper's reference to “the admissible scope of limitations on critical thinking on religious issues.” To member states for which freedom of expression is an essential principle of Constitutional law, the very concept of “limitations on critical thinking” is entirely unacceptable.