WASHINGTON (ABP) — The United States continues to oppose a proposed ban on defamation of religion currently before the United Nations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Nov. 17.
"Now, some people propose that to protect religious freedom, we must ban speech that is critical or offensive about religion," Clinton said while announcing release of an annual report monitoring the state of religious freedom around the world. "We do not agree."
The secretary's comment came as the U.N. General Assembly prepared to consider a "Defamation of Religions Resolution" adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Backed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an association of 56 Islamic states promoting Muslim solidarity, the proposed resolution targets systematic defamation of Islam and discrimination against Muslims, including ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim minorities in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Groups that advocate on behalf of persecuted Christian minorities around the globe contend the resolution is in essence an "international blasphemy law" that could be used to criminalize the practice of any religion besides Islam in countries that are predominantly Muslim.
A study by Freedom House, a non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, found that domestic blasphemy laws are responsible for broad violations of human rights, particularly when applied in weak democracies and authoritarian systems.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal body created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, takes the position that defamation laws do not solve problems of religious persecution and discrimination but in fact do more harm than good.
Pakistan first introduced a bill at the U.N. on the "Defamation of Islam" in 1999. Opponents cite Pakistan of an example of what can go wrong with blasphemy laws. A court there recently sentenced a 45-year-old Christian mother of five to death by hanging for allegedly defaming the Prophet Muhammad in an argument with fellow farm workers who were Muslims.
The U.N. has adopted a non-binding resolution on defamation of religion every year since 2005, but the last two years it passed by a plurality of votes rather than a majority. Opponents note that the resolution focuses on only one religion and suggest a broader perspective would win wider support. The U.S. has argued that prohibiting speech is not the way to promote tolerance.
"The United States joins in all nations coming together to condemn hateful speech, but we do not support the banning of that speech," Secretary of State Clinton said in her Nov. 17 remarks. "Indeed, freedom of speech and freedom of religion emanate from the same fundamental belief that communities and individuals are enriched and strengthened by a diversity of ideas, and attempts to stifle them or drive them underground, even when it is in the name and with the intention of protecting society, have the opposite effect."
"Societies in which freedom of religion and speech flourish are more resilient, more stable, more peaceful, and more productive," she said. "We have seen this throughout history. And as this report reflects, we see it in the world today."
The State Department report monitors 198 countries on matters concerning religious freedom. It gives special attention to "Countries of Particular Concern" that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" during the reporting period.
Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, People's Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan all currently carry the CPC designation. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends the addition of Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
Michael Posner, assistant secretary with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said designating Countries of Particular Concern is a separate exercise from the report, and that those decisions would be made during the next couple of months.
The State Department's religious-freedom report does not include a listing for the U.S. Secretary Clinton said that is because the Department of Justice monitors threats to religious freedom inside the country and issues reports throughout the year.
"With this report, we do not intend to act as a judge of other countries or hold ourselves out as a perfect example, but the United States cares about religious freedom," Clinton said. "We have worked hard to enforce religious freedom. We want to see religious freedom available universally. And we want to advocate for the brave men and women who around the world persist in practicing their beliefs in the face of hostility and violence."
–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.