Side Event during the UN Human Rights Council’s 16 th Session
Friday, 11 March 2011
Organised by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHRS), Forum Asia, Article 19, Human Rights Watch and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
• Mr. Ibrahim Salama, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division, Office of the UN High
• Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
• Ms. Jo Baker, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) International Human Rights Clinic, University of London; researcher for the study “Blasphemy Laws and Freedom of Expression in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) States”, partner project with CIHRS
• Ms. Bushra Gohar, Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan; parliamentarian with the Awami National Party, who submitted a bill on the repeal of the Blasphemy laws in 2009
• Ms. Sejal Parmar, Senior Legal Officer, ARTICLE 19; leads the organization’s legal and policy work on resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly on “defamation of religions”
Moderator: Jeremie Smith, Director, Geneva Office, CIHRS
Mr. Salama gave a briefing on the regional expert workshops on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred, for which he is responsible. The main reason for the workshops is to get a better understanding of, and clarify the demarcation between incitement to hatred and freedom of expression. The participants at workshops are supposed to discuss different national legislations, views and opinions on the issue.
Ms. Jo Baker: discusses different case in the Middle-East region. She stressed that the problems with blasphemy laws are, among other things, that they are too vague and that the concept of defamation is not clearly defined. She presented cases from Algeria, Syria and Pakistan. She emphasised that Pakistan’s Penal Code has some of the broadest blasphemy laws in the world. Ms. Baker also stressed that it is through the fostering of inter-religious understanding that the relevant human rights in this context can be best protected.
Ms. Gohar: Ms. Gohar shared her experience of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. She emphasized that, despite the impression outside of Pakistan that there does not exist a debate on blasphemy laws in Pakistan, there actually exists such a domestic debate in the country. She also stressed that you have to see the issue of blasphemy laws in Pakistan in the context of the complex situation in the country. Religion has long been used as a tool to control people, and the international community has allowed this, and has, when it has suited its interests, also supported it. Ms. Gohar further discussed a bill that repeals the blasphemy laws which she submitted in the assembly in Jan 2010.
Ms. Sejal Parmar discussed the resolutions of defamation of religion and their evolution. She mentioned several problematic legal and practical features of the resolutions, e.g. that they are counter-productive to the issue that they are said to address, i.e. discrimination. Instead of combating discrimination they are in fact undermining such attempts on national levels, and can be used to reinforce domestic blasphemy laws. Right now the debate on these resolutions in the UN is at an important cross road since there is a growing acceptance that the resolutions are inappropriate on both legal and practical grounds. Ms. Parmar finished by stressing that although legal standards are necessary to combat discrimination, there needs to be complementary efforts in fields such as inter-cultural dialogue and understanding.
Jeremie Smith from CIHRS concluded the discussion by emphasising that when the international community expresses opposition to blasphemy laws, it also needs to stress their opposition to discrimination. In this way the international community can uphold a constructive approach to the issue.