Fundamental to the protection of human rights are the principles of the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings and the obligation of all Member States of the United Nations to take measures to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. There is no denial that certain forms of expression can threaten the dignity of targeted individuals and create an environment in which the enjoyment of equality is not possible. For ARTICLE 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), such a risk may be provoked by expressions that are hateful – but not by those that are blasphemous or offensive.

ARTICLE 19 recognises that reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression may be necessary or legitimate to prevent advocacy of hatred based on nationality, race, religion that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. The organisation does not extend such legitimate restrictions to offensive and blasphemous expressions.

States may, but are not required to, introduce legislation on blasphemy. Several established democracies still have blasphemy provisions on the books, although most of these are rarely, if ever, used. In the United Kingdom, for example, there have been only two prosecutions for blasphemy since 1923; Norway saw its last case in 1936 and Denmark in 1938. Other countries, including Sweden and Spain, have repealed their blasphemy laws. In the United States, the Supreme Court steadfastly strikes down any legislation prohibiting blasphemy, on the fear that even well-meaning censors would be tempted to favour one religion over another, as well as because it “is not the business of government … to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine … In contrast, the European Court has found blasphemy laws to be within the parameters of what is "necessary in a democratic society".

The main reason for such ruling is one that calls into question the normative courage of the court, at least as far as this question is concerned: it considers State authorities to be in a better position than the international judge to give an opinion on the "necessity" of a "restriction" intended to protect from such material those whose deepest feelings and convictions would be seriously offended.

This is where ARTICLE 19 differs with the European Court of Human Rights and indeed with many laws and practices around the world.

Public good is better served by all-encompassing debate, even in harsh and offensive terms.  Indeed, as international human rights courts have stressed, the right to freedom of expression is applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society’.

Second, there is no actual evidence that the right to freedom of religion as understood under international standard is better served, or protected with or through blasphemy laws. Under international human rights law, freedom of religion, for instance, is not about respecting religion but about respecting people’s right to practice the religion of their choice. Do offensive statements threaten the ability of adherents to religions to exercise and express their own beliefs? This is highly doubtful. In a world where certain beliefs are recognised as more valid than others, what may befall their religion? The European Court of Human Rights has clearly ruled for instance that the right to freedom of religion does not impose a duty of States to enact laws that protect believers from insult or offence (Choudhury v UKIn Dubowska & Skup v Poland, which concerned the publication in a newspaper of a picture of Jesus and Mary with a gas mask over their faces, the authorities had opened an investigation and examined all sorts of evidence, but decided not to take any further action. The Commission found that the publication in question had not prevented anyone from exercising their freedom of religion, and that the decision not to prosecute anyone did not, in itself, amount to a failure to protect the applicants’ rights.

Blasphemy laws are the anti-thesis of human rights. At a normative level, they establish a hierarchy of beliefs that betrays the common understanding and intentions of the international human rights framework. Blasphemy laws are the Servants of Power and the means for religious persecution; they censor, they create a climate of fears, and they stifle artistic creativity, academic research, scholarship and freedom. They may also lead to imprisonment and death – thus violating the most potent human rights of all - the right to mental and physical integrity, and the right to life.

Add new comment