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The Problem with the UN Resolution on Defamation of Religions

Interviewee: L. Bennett Graham, Legislative and International Programs Officer, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Interviewer: Toni Johnson, Staff Writer, CFR.org
March 10, 2009

In late 2008, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution against defamation of religions, in particular Islam. L. Bennett Graham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty--a Washington-based group that promotes freedom of religious expression--filed an issues brief (PDF) to the UN human rights commissioner challenging the resolution. Graham says the resolution was conceived before the September 11, 2001, attacks and the Danish cartoon controversy that first flared in 2005 and "has become more of an issue since those events." The resolution expresses concerns about "serious instances of deliberate stereotyping of religions, their adherents and sacred persons in the media and by political parties and groups."

The most recent version of the resolution came out of the UN Human Rights Council and is expected to be part of the agenda for the April 2009 UN conference on combating racism and intolerance. Graham says adding religion to the racism agenda is a bad idea because protections for religion and race are based on different characteristics that shouldn't be conflated. "The problem with this resolution is it turns the traditional understanding of human rights on its head," he says. Traditional defamation laws protect individuals from false truth claims, not ideas, which cannot easily be proved true or untrue in court. Taking the defamation of religion "to the higher level of human rights is dangerous because we are no longer talking about the protection of individuals, we're talking about the protection of concepts," he argues.

Graham says the resolution is creating the idea that there is a right not to be offended, and it may provide legal cover to states seeking to suppress peaceful religious speech. "Globalization is turning what used to be a literal public square into a much larger theoretical public square," Graham says. "Issues like the defamation of religions resolution are unfortunate in that they seek to constrict that public square and deny certain people the ability to interact in that public square."


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