Free Speech Under Siege at the United Nations

The United Nations, which was founded after World War II with the noble goal of preventing further violence and conflict between nation-states, is losing its way.

The U.N. has historically been a great supporter of human rights, including the most important of them all, the right of free speech. Consider Articles 18 and 19 of the Fundamental Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by unanimous resolution of the General Assembly in 1948:

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

These are laudable statements in defense of free speech and free expression. I find nothing in them to disagree with, and I wish such principles were more widely held. But the U.N. itself now seems to be moving in the other direction, attempting to destroy the right of free speech in the name of a dubious moral relativism.

The past two years, the General Assembly has passed – though far from unanimously – a resolution titled “Combating Defamation of Religion“, which urges member states to pass laws prohibiting any speech that foments discrimination, hostility or violence against any religious group.

While preventing violence is an important goal, the rest of this resolution is a broad attack on the right to free expression wrapped in the garb of diplomatic language. What exactly constitutes “defamation” of religion? If a group of people have practiced a religious belief system for thousands of years, if they value it deeply and base their culture and lives around its teachings, is it “defamation” to suggest that those beliefs are false or lack supporting evidence? Will it be considered fomenting discrimination or hostility against a religion to say that that religion is false and people should not follow it, or to say that followers of that religion have been responsible for much oppression and violence? The very likely intended answer to both these questions, I fear, is yes. (The linked article spells out its answer: “The defamation of religions… may even prohibit the defamation of religious ideas and doctrines.”)

The apparent goal behind this resolution, as explained by Prof. Liaquat Ali Khan in the link above, is to prevent people from saying that Islam is a terrorist religion or intrinsically violent. I certainly understand why Muslims would not want people saying this. But if they do not want people saying this, then the way to stop that is to put a stop to Islamic terrorism – not to turn a blind eye to it, or even to encourage it by funding radical Muslim sects or disseminating anti-Western propaganda, and then react in outrage when some people suggest that Islam seems to give rise to terrorism quite frequently and demand that their speech be outlawed. As I have said before, if religious groups want people to stop criticizing them, then they should stop doing things worthy of criticism.

Although the article expresses superficial concern for preserving the right to free speech, its author’s understanding of why free speech is actually needed seems deficient. He explains that “the idea… poses no greater problems than prohibiting hate speech against racial, ethnic, or religious groups – a law adopted in almost all countries of the world except the United States”. Yes, and those laws are unacceptable infringements upon free speech as well. The cure for bad speech is not a law prohibiting it, but better speech. When we try to ban ideas simply because the majority finds them outrageous, embarrassing or offensive, those ideas are inevitably driven underground to flourish. Eliminating an idea by banning its expression is a tactic that has never, as far as I am aware, worked in human history. And regardless of the noble-sounding intentions behind “hate speech” laws, they usually put us on a slippery slope towards banning any idea which the majority dislikes, which is exactly what we see occurring here. Once the idea that a person can be forbidden to speak because we do not want to hear what he has to say is implanted in society, that concept all too quickly metastasizes into other areas of public discourse. In all cases, the cure for a bad argument is a better argument, one which exposes its fallacies while at the same time showing we are not afraid of allowing it to be voiced.

In a way, the free-speech debacle at the U.N. is a microcosm of the most fundamental problem with democracy itself – the tyranny of the majority. In this case, the majority of votes in the General Assembly come from countries that do not have a strong legal tradition of protecting free speech, who outnumber the relative minority that do. Although I believe that democracy is the only acceptable system of government, stories like this show the importance of counterbalancing the prejudices of the majority with a legal framework to protect the human rights of the minority, exactly as the United States’ founders established. Although this resolution is purely symbolic and has no binding power, it is a chilling expression of the profound hostility that still exists throughout the world to the idea of free speech. As simple and obvious an idea as this still faces widespread opposition and hostility, which is an important reminder of why it is worth fighting for.

* * *

On an even higher plane of idiocy, a professor named Robert Freedman has proposed an even more radical and ridiculous idea, one which calls for the creation of an “International Religious Court“, composed of Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy. Anyone who felt that their religion had been “insulted” could haul the perpetrator before this court, which would rule on what punishment they would have to undergo. Freedman further adds that media groups should consider the negative depiction of religion “out of bounds”.

I try to avoid harsh language, but there is no way to describe this proposal other than as incredibly stupid, by which I mean that it displays a glaring deficit of intelligence, reasoning and good judgment. Leave aside, for the moment, the bizarre assertion that a single person could represent all of Christianity, all of Judaism, or all of Islam, when each of these faiths are riven by divisions so deep that members of different sects have killed each other over them in the past. Leave aside the imperialist condescension implicit in the idea that only the Abrahamic religions deserve representation on this court, as opposed to the Eastern religions which have hundreds of millions of followers – or even atheism, which by most counts has far more adherents globally than Judaism. Leave aside these and all the other patent impossibilities implicit in the idea of establishing such a thing.

There is a more fundamental problem with this proposal, one which shows its author is either disrespectful or just plain ignorant of the very notion of human rights. Freedman seems to feel that if some act of speech offends members of a particular religion, then it is a bad thing and should be banned. In fact, speech that offends and even outrages others is often a good thing and the sure sign of a healthy, vigorous society. Speech that goes against widely held prejudices will always be unpopular, but such speech is also the only way to provoke societal revolution and moral improvement wherever it is needed. That is the whole point of why we have free speech in the first place.

If we are limited to only saying things that offend no one, then we will have lost the ability to say anything of value at all. This is no less true for religion than it is for any other area of society, and in fact it may be more true, considering how much harm has been done in the name of irrational superstitions throughout history. Like the U.N. resolution, Freedman’s proposal showcases his lack of understanding of the vital importance of being able to criticize bad ideas so that they can be replaced with better ones.

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  • Void

    The most important right? I don’t know about that. I’d probably consider the right to a fair trial more important, perhaps followed by protection against cruel and unusual punishment(i.e. torture). All in all another excellent post highlighting the disturbing lengths that the mistaken idea that religion is exempt from criticism can make one go to. Who is this Robert Freedman character? I wonder what his dystopian vision would lead to if it was actually implemented.

  • Archi Medez

    -Interesting to look at the countries which voted in favour and those who voted against the proposed U.N. resolution. Those who voted for it are largely communist or former communist dictatorships, Muslim-majority and Catholic-majority countries. (Also note that in general the leaders of the major religions tend to stick together in opposition to non-believers in regards to such issues as religious schools, religious personal law, limiting public criticisms of religion, and so on). Those who voted against the resolution are predominantly western secular states.

    -This resolution also highlights one of the problems with the U.N., namely, that it allows elected officials, once appointed to the U.N., to then by-pass the consent of their own constituents (i.e., the citizens of their own countries), to impose laws on those constituents. Hence the ominous spectacle of the majority of the world’s leaders voting to impose what amounts to a blasphemy law on the whole world, without the consent of ordinary citizens. The idea that a bunch of corrupt dictators and religious fanatics (i.e., the vast majority of the people who populate the U.N.) can get together to “vote” on the whole world’s freedom of expression is (a) absurd, and (b) unfortunately a reality.

    -Most (perhaps all?…I believe 57 or 56) of the Islamic countries have signed on to a separate declaration called The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990). It states [excerpts]:

    “Article 19
    (a) All individuals are equal before the law, without distinction between the ruler and the ruled.
    (b) The right to resort to justice is guaranteed to everyone.
    (c) Liability is in essence personal.
    (d) There shall be no crime or punishment except as provided for in the Shari’ah.
    (e) A defendant is innocent until his guilt is proven in a fair trial in which he shall be given all the guarantees of defence.

    Article 22 (a) Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.
    (b) Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Shari’ah.
    (c) Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.
    (d) It is not permitted to arouse nationalistic or doctrinal hatred or to do anything that may be an incitement to any form of racial discrimination.

    Article 24
    All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah.
    Article 25
    The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration.


    -Several western countries still have blasphemy laws on the books as hangovers from previous centuries, though they are seldom used. In Islamic countries, blasphemy is generally punished criminally, with penalties ranging from fines and short prison terms up to life in jail or death penalty.

  • andrea

    funny how every other religion except those psychotic ones of the “book” have been left out of this “religious court”.

    Love the new graphics, btw.

  • Rastaban

    Although the article expresses superficial concern for preserving the right to free speech, its author’s understanding of why free speech is actually needed seems deficient. He explains that “the idea… poses no greater problems than prohibiting hate speech against racial, ethnic, or religious groups – a law adopted in almost all countries of the world except the United States”. Yes, and those laws are unacceptable infringements upon free speech as well. The cure for bad speech is not a law prohibiting it, but better speech. When we try to ban ideas simply because the majority finds them outrageous, embarrassing or offensive, those ideas are inevitably driven underground to flourish. . . . In all cases, the cure for a bad argument is a better argument, one which exposes its fallacies while at the same time showing we are not afraid of allowing it to be voiced.

    Excellent point. You might have added that one of the reasons forbidden speech flourishes is because when a particular discussion becomes forbidden it necessarily gets pushed underground and becomes one-sided. As you say, “the cure for a bad argument is a better argument” but when the bad argument is forced into hiding the better argument is deprived of an appropriate public stage — and in consequence good arguments may be forgotten or remain underdeveloped.

    Another thing I found grating in Khan’s article on the “Combating Defamation of Religions” resolution was his insistence on the importance of protecting “the dignity of religion”. He writes

    One key function of law is to make distinctions and draw balance between competing rights. In the complex realm of human affairs, no right is absolute, not even free speech or the dignity of religion. Accordingly, the law against defamation of religions may be constructed in a way that does not abridge legitimate speech including artistic freedom and yet
    protects the dignity of religion.

    Balancing the right of “free speech” with the right of “dignity of religion” is nonsensical, because free speech is a right an individual can have, yet “dignity of religion” is a “right” only a religious institution or worldview can have. It’s not an individual right at all. Furthermore, whether the institution or worldview has “dignity” is a matter of personal opinion. The only way one could even attempt to preserve the “dignity” of any set of beliefs & practices would be to prohibit any opinion (or facial expression) to the contrary. It is impossible to “balance” that with free speech.

    Khan (who is a professor of law) also writes, rather chillingly,

    [A]ll nations must devote intellectual and moral resources to teach children and adults respect for the diversity of religions. A legal system in which religions are respected rather than trashed will not be a blemish on human civilization.

    I take this to mean that he believes the American legal system “trashes” religion — an absurd claim for a professor of law at an American university to make. What he really wants, I fear, is a legal system which punishes those of us who don’t appropriately respect the “dignity” of his particular worldview.

  • David

    IPI Worried by use of “Defamation of Religions” Phrase in International Statements, Fears it may encourage Media Persecution
    29 September 2006
    Vienna, 29 September 2006

    The International Press Institute (IPI) is becoming increasingly alarmed at the use of phrases calling for the prevention of the “defamation of religions” in a series of documents issued by the United Nations (UN).

    The phrase “defamation of religions” has its origins in a draft resolution brought before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in 1999 by Pakistan’s then permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Switzerland and was originally titled, “Defamation of Islam.”

    Because of criticism that the draft resolution unfairly highlighted one religion, the title was later amended to “Defamation of Religions” and passed by the UNCHR as Resolution 1999/82 of 30 April 1999.

    Since the passage of this resolution, there have been other resolutions containing the phrase, including a 12 April 2005 resolution before the UNCHR titled, “Combating Defamation of Religions.” Tabled once again by Pakistan, the resolution expressed the need to “effectively combat defamation of all religions.”

    Recently, on 8 September, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a global counter-terrorism strategy that contained the phrase, “and to promote mutual respect for and prevent defamation of religions.” In a speech before the UN General Assembly on 20 September, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf called for a ban on the “defamation of Islam.”

    Commenting on the issue, IPI Director Johann P. Fritz said, “The growing acceptance of this phrase at the international level has worrying implications for freedom of the media.”

    “In a conference in mid-July hosted by the OSCE, I warned that the UN’s willingness to use the word ‘defamation’ in conjunction with religion remains a lingering concern. It could provide suitable legal cover and justification for several countries wishing to introduce fresh blasphemy laws. If this were to happen the media would find it increasingly difficult to comment upon religious principles, religious practices and even religious leaders,” Fritz added.

    “While I accept that journalists should be tolerant of religion and, when necessary, express themselves sensitively, I am very concerned that the ‘space’ for the media to report critically is gradually being eroded. I am also worried that this disturbing trend is being aided and abetted by governments and inter-governmental organisations who share the view that the news media are playing a role in encouraging and promoting terrorism.”

    “Xenophobia and racism should be rightfully condemned at every possible opportunity. However, in the argument about their impact on the promotion of terrorism, it seems that press freedom and freedom of expression are being increasingly ignored to the detriment of all who believe that a critical media has a role to play in democratic societies,” said Fritz.

  • Oz

    Wouldn’t this measure actually outlaw most religious texts? They might not insult specific religions, but claiming that all others are wrong and that their followers are doomed seems a bit like hate speech to me. (Ugh, I hate that phrase.)

  • Terry

    Today I received the little book ‘Message to a Christian Nation’ by Sam Harris. I was once perhaps a fundamentalist Christian though looking back over fifty years I find that perhaps I wasn’t properly converted. However, I have moved so far along the road that I found absolutely nothing in the book offensive,(so what’s all the fuss about!). Only recently did I consider maybe I was an atheist.Still I live in New Zealand which is quite a godless country, even though its called ‘Godzown’.

  • Archi Medez

    Related story, update:
    U.N. rights body condemns “defamation” of religion. Fri Mar 30, 2007 1:29PM EDT