Preventing Violence and Achieving World Peace Conference

Peter Kovach, Director of Office of International Religious Freedom
Washington, DC
April 27, 2010

As a lifelong student of religion, I believe the world’s great faith traditions at heart should all use their faith to build bridges between diverse populations rather than erecting barriers among them. In the Quran we learn that Allah did not make all people the same so that we might respect differences and enforce no compulsion in religion. This teaching echoes God’s injunction to the ancient Israelites after their exodus from Egypt to “know the heart of the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Faith at its best compels followers to protect the rights of the other.

In contrast, the “defamation of religions” concept, which calls for bans on speech deemed to “defame religions,” is a counterproductive self-protecting measure. It seeks to protect religions from what could be perceived as offensive or even hateful speech. Inspired in part by the travails experienced by Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) first introduced the concept at the United Nations (UN) over a decade ago and has continued to advance it through annual resolutions entitled “Combating Defamation of Religions” at both the Human Rights Council (HRC) and General Assembly (UNGA) and recently, through a new initiative at the HRC to codify the concept in a legally binding instrument. The manner in which the OIC frames this concept is not something that Americans can embrace.

While we acknowledge the pain that hateful speech, discrimination, and bigotry can cause, particularly when it is directed toward those who practice a religion different from the majority, we believe the “defamation concept” is not founded on international law and does not address concerns of minority rights or the plight of immigrants in the West.

Intolerance and discrimination of individuals based on religion are real problems with serious manifestations all over the world and affecting a wide variety of religious traditions. The United States acknowledges this problem and is committed to defending the rights of religious believers wherever they may be, including those of Muslims in our country and throughout the West. However, banning speech deemed offensive to religious traditions is not the most effective way of addressing these concerns. Despite more than ten years of UN resolutions tackling the issue of “defamation,” troubling incidents of intolerance, discrimination, and even violence continue to occur. In countries as diverse as Egypt, Nigeria, and Switzerland, religious tensions and intolerant attitudes continue to emerge, often reflected in restrictions on religious freedom. The “defamation” resolutions and its call for bans on speech simply do not provide adequate or effective solutions for the real problems facing religious believers around the globe. As President Obama said in his Cairo speech to Muslims around the world, “Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.”

In addition to the practical reality mentioned above, the “defamation of religions” concept is problematic in that it seeks to protect religions. Human rights, however, were designed by the international community over time to protect the rights of individuals, not groups or ideologies.

Moreover, “defamation” carries a particular legal meaning that does not apply to systems of belief. A defamatory statement is by definition one that is false and not simply offensive or different from another’s point of view. Statements of faith, belief or opinion fall into the latter category. One man’s truth is the next man’s blasphemy. As Secretary Clinton said when unveiling the 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom,

Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies… I strongly disagree… The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions.

Perhaps the most sensitive problem associated with the defamation concept is the incontrovertible fact, prevalent across all societies and religions, that such protections designed not to offend members of a religious group when afforded to a predominant religion often can result in restrictions of thought, conscience, religious choice and practice, and expression of all of the above; in other words, prejudice and discrimination on a mass scale supported by government leaders. Such restrictions are anathema to universal values enshrined in international human rights law. Efforts to combat so-called “defamation of religions”, rather than promote tolerance as some may claim, typically result in restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression; they fuel intolerance and curtail the rights of individuals to speak their minds about religious matters or to disagree with state-supported or majority religious institutions.

I am certain that no one will disagree that offensive or even prejudicial and negative characterizations of religious traditions, coming from the lips of government leaders, in particular, but also from leaders of religious or other communities, are particularly dangerous. However, we must not sacrifice fundamental freedoms of speech and religion in our efforts to counter these problems. In fact, I would like to argue that freedom of religion and freedom of expression is not just an antithesis in a dialogue, but in fact core elements of the solution to hateful speech and intolerance. Less speech or approved speech is not the solution. Rather, we encourage the free and broad exchange of ideas and opinions, even about highly sensitive religious matters, as the basis for creating a culture of tolerance, mutual understanding, and peaceful coexistence of all religions and cultures. Countries and civil societies that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, more economically and socially successful and definitely more secure. Repressed by law or regimes of fear, hateful or derogatory ideas directed toward religion fester and are far more likely to emerge in virulent and violent form. I would add that hateful or derogatory ideas are best dealt with when they can be expressed and countered through public dialogue.

Our strong commitment to these fundamental freedoms was evidenced by a challenging initiative we undertook during the September session of the Human Rights Council. The goal was to craft a consensus resolution that would advance freedom of expression while avoiding any calls for bans on speech. Given the sensitive and at times heated debates at the HRC on freedom of expression and “defamation”, success was not a sure outcome. In keeping with the mandate of constructive re-engagement laid out by President Obama, we reached out to all members of the HRC, including members of the OIC, in an attempt to craft a mutually acceptable text and to advance the discussion of mutually acceptable solutions to the all too common problems of intolerance and hate speech. The resulting resolution, crafted jointly by Egypt and the United States, cosponsored by some 50 countries and adopted by consensus, was a huge and real step forward in acknowledging a problem and the role freedom of expression can play in solving that problem. That resolution, however, was only one step towards ending the international debate on freedom of expression and “defamation.” Other steps are needed to ensure the individual freedoms and beliefs we all hold dear are protected; other initiatives must be undertaken to bring the international community into consensus on real and effective solutions to the problems of intolerance and discrimination.

Towards this goal, we have identified a series of measures that have been demonstrated as effective in countering intolerance and promoting respect and have offered these as viable alternatives to the concept of “defamation.” Among these are legal prohibitions on discrimination and hate crimes, strong law enforcement, public education and training, inter-faith and intra-group dialogue, and rigorous tracking and dissemination of information. We advance these antidotes in part because our not-always-exemplary history as a pluralistic society suggests that they are effective. Also, we promote these approaches because they are also reflected in international instruments, in individual state practices, and in the academic literature. We believe these pillars can be the foundation of an internationally agreed action plan to address real discrimination, intolerance, and bigotry. We advocated for such an action plan in Geneva in October when the OIC was promoting a binding law to prohibit offensive speech as a way to address intolerance.

The United States stands against intolerance and discrimination wherever it occurs and is prepared to work in partnership with colleagues around the world towards this goal. We will also stand against counterproductive bans on speech and will work against, as stated by Secretary Clinton, false solutions that exchange one wrong for another.