(ZENIT News / Geneve-London, 07.21.2023).- In a blow to international free speech norms, the UN Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution that “underscores the need” to hold individuals responsible for blasphemy, in particular by desecrating the Qur’an, “to account”. The resolution, titled “Countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”, indicates that such penalties would be “consistent with obligations of States arising from international human rights law.”
The move comes following the public burning of a Qur’an as a protest in Sweden. Swedish police had granted a permit for the protest, in accordance with its free-speech laws.
The action sparked death threats and intense international reactions, particularly in Muslim-majority countries where protests broke out outside of Swedish Embassies. Turkish, Egyptian and other governments issued condemnations of the burning and criticised the Swedish authorities for allowing the protest to take place. Swedish police later said the incident was being investigated for incitement to hatred.
Speaking from the Human Rights Council in Geneva, ADF International’s Director of UN Advocacy Giorgio Mazzoli commented on the passing of the resolution:
“The deliberate burning of sacred books, whether it involves the Qur’an, the Bible, or the Torah, is an act of provocation, which can stir emotions and cause serious offense to many. However, in a democratic society, the cost of safeguarding our fundamental right to speak freely sometimes lies in the discomfort of being offended by the actions of others with which we disagree.
Regardless of the form it takes, nobody should face criminal penalties for expressing their core convictions, nor disagreeing with a certain religion or belief system. The anti-blasphemy resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council is a troubling regression for international religious freedom protections. It must be a clarion call for all those who believe in the importance of freedom of expression to recommit to championing this fundamental human right on the global stage, and stand firmly against blasphemy laws.”
UK Stand Up for Free Speech Abroad
The resolution, which passed with 28 votes to 14 (and 7 abstentions), was opposed by the UK government, which stated:
“International human rights law provides us with narrowly defined parameters on which freedom of expression can be limited, and we don’t accept that, by definition, attacks on religion, including on religious texts or symbols, constitute advocacy of hatred.
Whilst we completely reject acts seeking to incite discrimination, hostility or violence, wherever they are carried out, we need to recognise that the primary function of the international human rights framework – forged out of the bitter experience of centuries past – is to protect individuals from the State. Tragically, there are all too many examples in the world right now and in recent years where believers – religious or not – have been ruthlessly oppressed by those who are meant to guarantee their rights.”
The government’s response comes only months after a high-profile incident of Qur’an desecration in the UK. In Wakefield, a schoolboy with autism received death threats, and had to account for his actions in front of an all-male audience at a local mosque, after dropping and scuffing a copy of the book.
In reference to the incident, Home Secretary Suella Braverman noted in the Times that, “We do not have blasphemy laws in Great Britain, and must not be complicit in the attempts to impose them on this country. There is no right not to be offended. There is no legal obligation to be reverent towards any religion. The lodestar of our democracy is freedom of speech…The act of accusing someone of apostasy or blasphemy is effectively inciting violence upon that person.”
The weakened stance of the UN Human Rights Council on free speech has caused concern regarding widespread incidents of unjust imprisonments and penalties towards religious minorities who have been accused or condemned of “blasphemy” because of their beliefs. In a high-profile case pending before the Nigerian Supreme Court, for example, ADF International is supporting the legal defense of Sufi musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, who received a death sentence for sharing lyrics he had composed on WhatsApp, deemed to be blasphemous.
“In many countries worldwide, ADF International is supporting the legal defense of individuals facing dire consequences, including death row, for sharing views considered to be “blasphemous” or insulting to religion. Instead of muddying the waters of freedom of expression and affirming the legitimacy of blasphemy laws, the Human Rights Council should unequivocally condemn all laws that enable the oppression of individuals solely for expressing their own views or beliefs” continued Giorgio Mazzoli.
Blasphemy laws at home?
While the UK government robustly defended freedom of religion against blasphemy laws in the international arena, a growing number of incidents in the UK have indicated a slide into censoring expressions of faith, belief and even mere thought.
In February 2023, two individuals in Birmingham were placed on criminal trial for praying silently in their heads outside of an abortion facility, where a censorial “buffer zone” was in place to ban any act of “approval or disapproval” of abortion, including through prayer. In Bournemouth, a similar buffer zone is in operation which similarly bans crossing oneself and sprinkling holy water.
Numerous street preachers have faced arrest in recent years, including ex-Muslim Christian convert Hatun Tash, who regularly debates Islamic tenants at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. Despite having been stabbed and attacked by members of the public for her words, Tash was arrested after her copy of the Qur’an was stolen from her; she was detained overnight, strip searched and interrogated.
The Scottish government have faced particular criticism for replacing one censorial “blasphemy” law with another in 2021 – removing the old law that would penalise those who speak out against the Church, and instating a “hate speech” law, which could deter people from discussing a Christian view of marriage or gender, even around a family dinner table.
“The government have taken steps to increase censorship in this country in recent years – from passing legislation that could prohibit even silent prayer on public streets, to enabling the overreaching arrests of street preachers who are merely reading from the Bible and expressing Christian beliefs,which happen to no longer align with the beliefs of the state apparatus,” said Lorcan Price, Legal Officer for ADF UK.
“We welcome the UK government’s clear commitment to freedom of thought, conscience and belief as demonstrated by its stance at the UN Human Rights Council this week. We call on the government to apply this zeal for free speech to the home turf – to boldly protect those whose views are in the minority. Society prospers from a free and open public dialogue, when nobody is afraid of being arrested for sharing their thoughts and beliefs,” he continued.