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The United Nations vs Free Speech
A new resolution gives authoritarian governments cover to suppress dissent in the name of religious tolerance.
In 1950, Eleanor Roosevelt, serving as the first Chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, was involved in a bitter dispute about the limits of free speech. Stalin’s Soviet Union fought tooth and nail to ensure that states should not only be permitted, but obliged to prohibit “hate speech” under international human rights law. Roosevelt issued a stark warning, as she found the Soviet proposal “extremely dangerous.” It would “only encourage Governments to punish all criticisms in the name of protection against religious or national hostility,” and she warned the commission “not to include… any provision likely to be exploited by totalitarian States for the purpose of rendering the other articles null and void.”
Fast forward to July 12, 2023, and a majority of the United Nations Human Rights Council proved Roosevelt prophetic. It did so by adopting a resolution that drives a stake through Roosevelt’s vision of an international human rights system that protects oppressed citizens against their oppressive governments.
The resolution calls on member states to, among other things, “address, prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred.” The resolution is a response to the increasing number of Quran burnings in Denmark and Sweden by Danish far-right extremist Rasmus Paludan and a few copycats. No doubt Paludan is a bigot and revels in the attention and mayhem that his gratuitous provocations elicit. But however tempting it is to silence an extremist like Paludan, criminalizing the burning of “holy books” because it constitutes “advocacy of religious hatred,” as the HRC resolution proposes, is short-sighted and dangerous.
One only has to look at some of the 28 states that voted in favor of the resolution to realize that the real purpose is not to counter hate speech or foster equality and tolerance, but to provide authoritarian governments cover and legitimacy when suppressing dissent.
Among those who supported the resolution we find Pakistan, where blasphemy is punishable by death and where the charge of blasphemy is used to persecute religious minorities and secularists. China too voted in favor of the resolution, despite its atheist political ideology. Apparently, China thinks Muslims should be protected against book burnings in democracies, but not against the Chinese Communist Party’s systematic and arbitrary detention of more than one million Uighurs—most of whom are Muslims—in “reeducation” camps. This includes the 57-year-old woman Hasiyet Ehmet, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for teaching Islam to children and hiding copies of the Quran.
Iran’s treatment of critics of its theocratic government provides a chilling example of the kind of religious and political oppression that the HRC resolution would help legitimize. In May 2023, the regime hanged Yousef Mehrad and Sadrollah Fazeli Zar for insulting the prophet Muhammad and promoting atheism. Among their supposed crimes was burning a copy of the Quran.
One might have expected the United Nations’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk to forcefully reject the criminalization of symbolic expressions as a violation of international human rights law, while lamenting the intolerant attitudes that such expressions convey. Instead, Türk made a mealy-mouthed statement that failed to take a clear stand but implicitly suggested that the burning of Qurans constitutes prohibited incitement to hatred.
This is a gross dereliction of duty that undermines years of efforts to narrow the scope of hate speech restrictions under human rights law, due to very real examples of government abuse that Roosevelt diagnosed more than half a century ago.
In 2011, efforts by the Obama administration led the HRC to adopt a landmark resolution meant to once and for all end decade-long efforts by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation at the United Nations to criminalize blasphemy under international human rights law. The resolution stressed the primary importance of counterspeech and education as the first line of defense against the very real phenomenon of religious intolerance and negative stereotyping. More importantly, it emphasized that human rights law protects people, not religions or ideologies. While the resolution “condemned” advocacy of incitement to hatred, it only called on the criminalization of “incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.” The requirement of incitement to imminent violence stresses that restrictions on free expression are only legitimate when protecting physical human beings, not abstract religious ideas, from serious real-world harm.
The new HRC resolution is a naked attempt to undermine this speech-protective standard to the detriment of religious and political dissent around the globe. As the current United States ambassador to the Human Rights Council stated: “While we abhor expressions of religious hatred, we do not believe freedom of expression can or should be abridged to outlaw them.”
However disturbing and deeply offensive to religious believers, defining the mere symbolic expression involved in burning holy books as “incitement” is a perversion of language. Indeed, those engaging in genuine incitement are those who call for the death of “blasphemers,” which unfortunately happens all too often. And the list of those on the receiving end of incitement properly understood is not limited to far-right extremists like Ramus Paludan. On it we find Salman Rushdie; the murdered journalists at Charlie Hebdo; the Afghani woman Farkhunda Malikzada, beaten and burned to death by a mob after being falsely accused of burning the Quran; and the Pakistani student Mashal Khan, who was lynched by fellow students for alleged blasphemy.
Free speech and religious tolerance are two sides of the same coin. The same right that allows extremists like Paludan to burn the Quran protects Muslims from political demands that the Quran be banned. Religious believers have every right to peacefully protest and condemn those that burn their holy books. But they must not be permitted to put them in prison.
Jacob Mchangama is the CEO of the Future of Free Speech Project, Research Professor at Vanderbilt University, and a senior fellow with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
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