Freedom of Expression and Religious Belief at the UN Human Rights Council

Geneva, Wednesday, March 08, 2017: This week, Bytes for All (B4A) is running a series of events at the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) – currently in its 34th session – to highlight how issues around freedom of expression and religious belief (FoE and FoRB) are playing out in the digital environment in Asia.

The key document here remains the Rabat Plan of Action, launched by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2013; a landmark resolution sought, among other things, to provide states with concrete guidance how hate speech can be combated without infringing the right to freedom of expression.

Four years on, it’s clear that much more remains to be done. In many countries around the world – including in Asia – legitimate expression is still curtailed, even criminalised, on the grounds of religious belief, and often in reference to hate speech. Hate speech is a legitimate restriction on freedom of expression but is sometimes interpreted in an overly broad way, and misapplied.
At our events scheduled this week at the UN HRC, we’ll be highlighting two issues in particular :

• First, the worrying use of laws to curtail dissent, especially against human rights defenders, civil society activists, writers, journalists, and political opponents. Our recent report, Desecrating Expression – An Account of Freedom of Expression and Religion in Asia, highlights numerous recent examples of such abuses in Asia; such as Usman Liaqat, a Christian in Pakistan who was arrested and detained for allegedly posting ‘blasphemous’ content on Facebook; and Eric Paulsen, a non-religious lawyer in Malaysia who has been charged with sedition for criticising the government and Islamic extremism. These incidents represent clear breaches of states’ obligations to respect the right to freedom of expression online.

• Second, the continuing failure of states to protect minorities in exercising their right to FoE and FoRB. As the Rabat Plan of Action outlines, “To tackle the root causes of intolerance, a much broader set of policy measures is necessary, for example in the areas of intercultural dialogue – reciprocal knowledge and Interaction – education on pluralism and diversity, and policies empowering minorities and indigenous people to exercise their right to freedom of expression”. This is currently not happening; a problem which is also highlighted in Desecrating Expression.

At B4A, we’re encouraged by the fact that the new UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief (UNSR), Ahmed Shaheed, highlighted these very issues in his first report – delivered yesterday at the UNHRC.

But words alone are not enough. We call on civil society groups globally to maintain pressure on governments to abide by their international human rights commitments. One effective way of doing this is to highlight gaps between obligations and implementation (here, the Rabat Plan provides a useful benchmark). In practice, this might mean:

• Raising awareness of violations to national human rights institutions;
• Making submissions to the Universal Periodic Review process on human rights violations when states are under review;
• Providing evidence of violations to relevant treaty bodies (such as the UN Human Rights Committee) when states are under review;
• Using the complaints procedure of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief and other relevant special procedures.

We would also encourage civil society groups to consult the “Jakarta Recommendations on Freedom of Expression in the context of religion”, the outcome of discussions at a regional consultation on “Expression, Opinion and Religious Freedoms in Asia” held in Jakarta in June 2015.

To stay up to date with our work on freedom of expression and religious belief, follow us on Twitter; and keep abreast of developments from the UN HRC session on #HRC34.

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