International,  Secularism

The Death of Human Rights Discourse

The United Nations recently passed a resolution which will fundamentally change the nature and focus of work of its Human Rights Council. The General Assembly resolution backed up a decade of similar resolutions passed by the UNHRC (and its predecessor, the UNCHR). Instead of being a watchdog, monitoring abuses of people, it will now finally shift focus to protecting ideas – specifically religious ones – from what it calls “defamation”.

This was not the purpose of this council. Indeed, scanning the membership of the council by country, one can’t help thinking that it is, to be a frank, a fucking joke.

I should say from the outset that I am fundamentally in favour of Free Speech but I accept and supports reasonable limitations such as incitement to violence and the incitement to hatred where the reasonable person accepts that this is likely to lead to violence or the breakdown of public order. The precise limitations are a complex discussion (which we have rehashed many times) and not within the scope of what I want to focus on today.

But I am convinced, however, that the restrictions on Freedom Of Speech proposed by the UNHCR’s resolution do not fulfil any of these limited exclusionary criteria, and moreover completely undermine any pretence of human rights concerns while derailing efforts to protect people from some of the worst abusers in the world today.

The countries who voted in favour of this resolution, with some exceptions, are a veritable roll call of the most vicious and despotic regimes in the world today, countries where human freedom, civil liberties and basic rights are a mirage:  Afghanistan, Algeria, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Bhutan, Bolivia, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chile, China, Colombia, Comoros, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Grenada, Guinea, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Niger, Oman, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore, South Africa, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is dead.

In its place we have this, requiring the Special Reporteur of the UNHRC to:

“report on the implementation of the present resolution and to submit a study compiling relevant existing legislations and jurisprudence concerning defamation of and contempt for religions to the Council at its ninth session.”

The meaning of ‘defamation’ is nebulous and will easily be abused by those who which to characterise any and all criticism of their religious beliefs as a ‘defamation’.

Freedom of Speech is a human right and a social good that safeguards the free exchange of ideas and guards against tyranny. When it is absent or disproportionately limited beyond the caveats I noted earlier, tyranny thrives and ideas whither.

Religion – like other ideas and philosophies that spur people to action, act as a prism through which events are interpreted, and which dictate policy – cannot be immune from criticism. There are many issues raised by the practice of religion which those concerned with human right and responsibilities might wish to raise.  Example include, but are not limited to:

  • The status of women 
  • The status of ethnic minorities and non-believers
  • The mutilation of children
  • The rights of sexual minorities
  • The slaughter of animals
  • Access to medical attention
  • Claims about science or history

In all these areas, different religions might disagree and religion might disagree with the secular world. From a human rights perspective, it is not only likely but necessary that some of these practices are criticised and attempts are made to end them.

In any of these instances, criticism of a practice, taboo, or belief from without may cause the believer of that particular religion, hurt, upset, anger, embarrassment, confusion or insult.  While this might be unfortunate, it is an unavoidable consequence of living in a globalised, multi-cultural world.

The first responsibility of human rights defenders is to protect the human, the person. Beliefs or ideas do not require protection. Furthermore it is not desirable that ideas or beliefs are protected. These have necessarily evolved throughout the course of human history. A belief has inbuilt protection. It survives because people believe it. When people cease believing it, its time has come. There can be no coherent argument that beliefs, including religious ones, deserve respect and protection without qualification.

People on the other hand, do need protection:  too often from the consequences of adherence to unchallenged beliefs.

A salient example is the scientific approach to the combating of he HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa which is constantly frustrated and derailed by religious intervention.  A failure to criticise such destructive interference by The Catholic Church costs lives. Furthermore, the negative effects on the society experiencing the epidemic fuels conditions which lead to a degradation of human dignity and of human rights.

Protecting the victims in this situation ought to be the UNCHR’s priority, not protecting Catholics from offence or insult.

Similarly, the treatment of women in a country like Saudi Arabia is scandalous. Human Rights defenders must be free to say so – however robustly – in spite of the risk of offending or insulting the religious sensibilities of the society that oppresses its women.

The UNHCR’s resolution provides a weapon to those with the most fundamentalist and evangelical in their religious beliefs. It is obvious that the more fervent a faith, the more likely it is to feel aggrieved when challenged or confronted. The more deeply-felt the belief, the more likely the perception of insult will be, and the more certain the taking of offence will be.

Those groups most likely to abuse the moral force of the UNHCR’s resolution are consequently likely to be the least moderate in their religious views and practices, and as such, the most likely to be in conflict with the mandate of the UNCHR in its principle areas of work.  This important work will thus be thrown into confusion and disarray as a consequence of the contradiction.

In a modern global world, the notion of ‘blasphemy’ is making less and less sense. In the past, homogenous societies with comparatively little outside contact could enforce a rigid set of religious norms.  But, with globalisation, it quickly became apparent that many religions existed, all with incompatible claims about the nature of the universe, the world and the persons’ place in it. In this regard, the world’s religions are mutually blasphemous. They reject each others’ claims and deny the divinity of each others’ gods, while asserting the supremacy of their god or gods, ideas and morality.

Advances in human rights and civil liberties have also meant that the expression of non-belief and scepticism is more widespread and vocal than ever before. This has encouraged people even in countries where religion has political power and influence to speak their minds – particularly women, sexual minorities, people with conscientious objections, and others who feel persecuted and oppressed by the dominant religious norms.

Understandably, the opportunity to take offence and to be offended or insulted has multiplied exponentially.  However the right to not be offended or feel insulted is neither a basic human right nor a reasonable expectation.

On the contrary, it is the hallmark of a free society. Societies with the greatest potential for offence and insult are frequently societies in which citizens enjoy the greatest levels of freedom, liberty and democracy.

In stark contrast, societies where the criticism of religion – ‘blasphemy’ by another name – is not permitted, or is used as a pretext to silence social and political dissent, civil liberties and democracy suffers the most.

In many countries, political and intellectual dissidents and members of social minorities are imprisoned on the basis of laws founded in religious doctrine or on the spurious grounds that they have insulted religion or outraged religious sensitivities.

In addition, many extra-judicial actions threatening the human rights and welfare of individuals – notably so-called honour killing – are carried out because the victim is deemed to have blasphemed in some way. Because of this, the law often looks the other way and, it is often suggested, tacitly approves such (non-legal) actions.

It is a very great concern that this UN resolution will be interpreted as (false) vindication for such outrages.

The resolution elevates religious beliefs above other beliefs, philosophies and opinions.  It begs the question why a belief in a supernatural deity should uniquely be protected against criticism, rebuke or parody and not other deeply felt beliefs of a political or philosophical nature.

This places religion in an unassailably privileged position while it remains fair to say that religion’s contribution to human rights has not always been entirely positive.  Indeed, many of the strides forward human rights have made over the centuries have been in direct opposition to the prevailing religious authorities and even the religious sensitivities of wider society.

Were criticism, rebuke or parody of dominant religious ideas not a fact of history, it is questionable whether slaves would have been freed or women granted suffrage. Nor would the advances in science, technology and medicine – and the attendant improvements in human rights they facilitated – have been able to flourish.

The resolution threatens to stall this progress.

Many of the most blatant human rights abuses in the world today are performed in the name of religion. Examples include the failure to recognise the equal status or women, genital mutilation of children, cruel and inhuman punishments carried out for minor crimes, repression of sexual minorities, and silencing of conscientious dissent. In addition, discrimination within societies is frequently justified on the grounds of religion or according to religious affiliation. Many conflict areas in the world – themselves sources of human rights abuses – are complicated by religious issues, and the politicisation of religion has introduced fresh challenges to balancing human rights and political rights with the practice of religion.

All these concerns require the full attention of bodies like the UNCHR. The resolution combating defamation of religion will certainly shift the focus of the Commissions work away from protecting the many victims of human rights abuses (especially where this abuse is inspired by or justified by religion or religious differences) towards protection of religion itself.

It is people who require protection, not religions, philosophies, institutions, or other abstractions.

This shift of focus endangers people, while in many foreseeable instances, provides cover and comfort to those who would abuse human rights.

Such abuse will continue while the Commission’s attention and resources are elsewhere, particularly protecting the sensitivities of the most vocal religious groupings and policing ‘speech crimes’.

It is also plain as daylight that the UNCHR will struggle under the weight of contradictions when it becomes apparent that in many instances, those accused of ‘offending religious sensitivities’ are in fact the victims whose welfare the Commission ought to be protecting.

The adoption of the resolution seeking to protect religion and religious beliefs from defamation will divert the UNHCR from its primary function; will provide a religious cover to the worst human rights abuses; will silence legitimate criticism of religious practice; and will have a devastating effect of free speech.

Worryingly, efforts at mobilising opposition to this deplorable development haven’t captured the attention of the media or of our government. The International Humanist & Ethical Union is speaking out, as is the National Secular Society in the UK.  Human Rights Watch noted that the UNHRC’s resolution “could itself endanger human rights”. A group of NGOs, chiefly from Islamic countries has expressed its horror – because they know exactly what this means. The liberal Canadian Muslim Congress agreed, saying it was “a move by Islamic countries to bulldoze the UNHRC into approving a resolution curtailing freedom of speech under the guise of protecting religion.”

But where is Amnesty International?

Amnesty hailed the launch of the UNHRC in 2006 as “new beginning for Human Rights”. Ironically, they were right… but for all the wrong reasons.