“If we allow the state to regulate religion, we allow it to censor our beliefs,” stated UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue in his keynote address at the conference on Human Rights and the Defamation of Religions held on October 21, 2009. Co-sponsored by Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the conference hosted La Rue, as keynote speaker, and two panels of prominent educators and legal professionals from around the world. While speakers discussed a variety of sub-topics and expressed diverse opinions and beliefs, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be a reluctance to use human rights organizations such as the UN Human Rights Council to promote laws against defamation of religion.

The UN Human Rights Council passed Resolution 7/19, Combating Defamation of Religion, on March 28, 2008 and reaffirmed this decision by again adopting the non-binding text on March 27, 2009. The text condemns the defamation of religion as a tool to promote bigotry and stereotyping, focusing on recent trends villainizing Islam. Over 180 activist organizations spoke out against the resolution, stating that it may be used as a tool to threaten free speech and silence dissent in the form of human rights organizations and opposition views. While many proponents of the resolution argue that these views are western-centric, those who have in fact most strenuously criticized the resolution are minority and women’s groups in the countries that are most likely to enforce resolution 7/19, such as Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka.

The first panel of speakers discussed defamation of religion at the state level. Panelists cited Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka to illustrate current trends in government intolerance toward divergent religious ideology and speech. In reference to Sri Lanka, panelist Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, who manages the International Religious Freedom Consortium and the Global Human Rights Program at Freedom House, described the progression from a tolerant and inter-relational society to a post-conflict state of accepted repression and intolerance. Sri Lanka, according to Gunawardena-Vaughn, is an example of how freedom of expression can be curtailed by an oppressive government in the wake of great national trauma.  Rather than addressing defamation of religion by limiting speech, the UN should address the serious issues associated with religious intolerance and bigotry through a human rights dialogue focused on increasing communication.

The moderator for the panel, Angela Wu of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, noted that blasphemy laws are widespread and that there are important legal repercussions when approaching them through human rights organs such as the UN Human Rights Council. By protecting defamation of religion laws, the Human Rights Council is supporting restrictions distinct from the traditional individualistic and humanistic focus of human rights law. According to Wu, UN support for blasphemy laws, which states most often enforce against religious and other minorities, would allow governments to exercise oppressive power over the beliefs of individuals without international protection.

The moderator for the second panel titled “International Human Rights in Tension,” Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution opened with the question: Have we moved beyond defamation of religion? The conversation that followed proved that defamation is still very relevant to intercultural and interfaith dialogue. The panelists discussed, for example, the cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed that caused riots in Europe and the Arab world alongside concepts of censorship and intercultural respect. Jose Casanova, a preeminent scholar on the sociology of religion, explored decisions by American editors not to re-print these cartoons and whether this was cultural sensitivity or self-censorship. Most important to Casanova was the concept of respect; absent respect, statements pertaining to belief systems diverse from one’s own often become mockery and destroy inter-religious communication.

Abdullahi An-Na’im, an professor of law from Emory University and a current visiting professor at the Berkley Center who focuses on cross-cultural issues, suggested that panelists were approaching the topic from a distinctly United Statesian perspective, pointing out that freedom of religion and expression are very different concepts across countries and cultures. An-Na’im proposed that approaching human rights from a top-down perspective is inadequate to meet the needs of most people, and that true consensus can only be reached via an inter- and intra-cultural paradigm. Finding topics that allow people across cultures to move beyond the beliefs for which they cannot find consensus may further true discussion and accord.

The keynote address by UN Special Rapporteur La Rue shifted the focus from religion and defamation to related questions of freedom of opinion and expression. A strong advocate of free communication, La Rue expressed a belief that expanding tolerance for dialogue on most subjects limits government’s ability to criminalize individuals’ beliefs. Through uncensored dialogue, we limit authoritarian governments and create greater cultural understanding. A staunch critic of defamation of religion laws, La Rue believes the UN should not only prevent the expansion of such laws into the human rights legal rubric, but should actively seek to undermine them through the promotion of freedom of expression.

Defamation of religion is not a simple topic and is intimately connected to extremely sensitive, globally relevant issues. The diversity of the panelists and the subjects discussed were a testament to their complexity and prevalence. From censorship to respect, and government oppression to cultural sensitivity, defamation of religion is governed by political and cultural concerns on which there is not yet an international consensus. Despite the divergent politics and approaches of the panelists, all of them appeared to agree that human rights are not the proper venue for these laws, and expressed the hope that the future will find the UN more sensitive to the distinction between human rights law and defamation of religion laws.