On 11th July 2023, during the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council, which opened on June 19, 2023, an urgent debate was convened to ‘discuss the alarming rise in premeditated and public acts of religious hatred as manifested by recurrent desecration of the Holy Quran in some European and other countries.’ The urgent debate was requested in an official letter on 3rd July 2023 from Pakistan on behalf of member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) addressed to the President of the Human Rights Council.
On 5th July, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva, H.E. Khalil Hashmi, delivered a statement on behalf of OIC Group regarding the decision of convening the urgent debate, in which he explained the reasons for requesting it, citing the recurrence of acts of religious hatred, the sense of impunity and absence of legal deterrence measures, considering that the recent burning and desecration of the Holy Quran on 28th June was at least the sixth occasion in recent months. The Permanent Representative explained that the increase in premeditated Islamophobic acts is often portrayed as an exercise of freedom of expression. He emphasised that ‘due to the systemic and recurring nature of this phenomenon, mere words are no longer enough. The status quo which seeks to normalise desecrations of sacred books by invoking interpretations grounded in opinions ‘is no longer tenable,’ he said. For these reasons, the OIC had requested an urgent debate and presented draft resolution L.23, entitled ‘countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.’
Urgent debates can be initiated during a regular session of the Human Rights Council to tackle urgent situations requiring a rapid response from the Council. This debate was the ninth urgent debate of the Human Rights Council since its creation in 2006. The Council unanimously approved the request to adjust the program of work and include the debate.
Historical UN action on intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief
The issue of discrimination and intolerance based on religious grounds was already addressed by the UN in the ICCPR, adopted in 1966. Article 20 establishes that ‘any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.’
Prior to the establishment of the Human Rights Council, its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, appointed a ‘Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance’ through the adoption of resolution 1986/20 in 1985. In 2000, the Commission changed the mandate’s title to ‘Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.’
Addressing religious hatred and promoting tolerance has been a significant aspect of the Council’s work since its inception in 2006. In its first session, the Council adopted decision 1/107, which requested the Special Rapporteur to report to the Council on the defamation of religions, incitement to racial and religious hatred, and its implications for Article 20(2) of the ICCPR. In 2007, through resolution 6/37 the Council extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for an additional three-year period. Since the Council’s establishment in 2006, the mandate has been extended 5 times, most recently in 2022 through the adoption of resolution 49/5 during the Council’s 49th session. Since the establishment of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, mandate-holders have presented 24 thematic reports to the Council, 28 reports to the General Assembly, and 27 reports to the Commission on Human Rights. Furthermore, since the creation of the Council, mandate-holders have completed 26 country visits, adding on to the 19 country visits conducted under the Human Rights Commission.
In 2011, the Council adopted the landmark resolution 16/18, which contains eight action points [paragraph 5, subparagraphs (a) to (h)], committing member States to take specific measures at the national level in policy, law, and practice, to address intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief and its root causes. The eight action points include building collaborative networks; developing mechanisms to identify tensions; conducting outreach training; discussing root causes of discrimination; speaking out; criminalising incitement to violence; providing education to combat negative stereotyping; and recognising the role of open debate and interfaith dialogue.
This resolution has been followed up on by States through the ‘Istanbul Process,’ a series of meetings launched by the OIC in July 2011, with the primary objective of calling upon States to take effective measures to implement the resolution. Along the process, States have met in the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Qatar, Singapore, and the Netherlands, to exchange ideas and good practices and to take stock of lessons learnt. To date, eight meetings of the Istanbul Process have been held, with the most recent one convened by the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the United Nations in Geneva in February 2022.
Moreover, as a complement to resolution 16/18, in 2012 a group of international experts and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights developed the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, which provides legal and policy guidance on the implementation of article 20 of the ICCPR and its conjunction with article 19, which enshrines freedom of expression. The Rabat Plan of Action further addresses potential grey areas in the implementation of article 20 by establishing a high threshold of exceptional circumstances allowing for limitations on speech and expression.
The United Nations Security Council has also taken action on issues pertaining to hate speech, discrimination, and extremism, most recently by adopting resolution 2686, which recognises ‘the importance of interreligious and intercultural dialogue and its valuable contribution to promoting social cohesion, peace and development,’ and encourages States to prevent the spread of intolerant ideologies.
Background on the debate
An urgent debate by the UN Human Rights Council on the ‘alarming rise in premeditated and public acts of religious hatred as manifested by the recurrent desecration of the Holy Quran in some European and other countries’ was requested by Pakistan on behalf of member states of the OIC following the burning of the Quran outside Stockholm’s central mosque on the 28th June, coinciding with the Muslim holiday of Eid. The incident sparked a rapid international response, primarily from countries in the Middle East swiftly condemning the act and summoning the Swedish Ambassadors. The OIC convened an extraordinary meeting on 2nd July in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, calling on its member States to adopt collective measures ‘to prevent the recurrence of incidents of desecration of copies of the Quran.’
The urgent debate
After introductory remarks by the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Václav Bálek, a series of keynote addresses were delivered by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Volker Türk, and Ms. Nazila Ghanea, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
Mr. Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, opened his statement by appealing to the essential role of religious symbols in shaping human identity and core beliefs. He highlighted that the abuse or destruction of the manifestations of beliefs can polarise societies and aggravate tensions.
Throughout his intervention, Mr. Türk underscored three key points. Firstly, he emphasised the need to act with respect for others. The High Commissioner recalled the ‘immense benefit of diversity for all societies’ and that everyone has an equal right to believe or not believe. Mr. Türk further called for the promotion of interfaith harmony and mutual respect, and condemned the vandalism, speech, and inflammatory acts carried out against members of multiple faiths, while warning that violence cannot be justified upon such acts of provocation. Regarding the complex relationship between freedom of speech and incitement to violence, Mr. Türk pointed out that limitations on speech and expression should remain exceptional while acknowledging that in certain circumstances freedom of speech can be used to incite violence and discrimination. He referred to article 20 of the ICCPR, which establishes States’ obligation to prohibit any advocacy of religious hatred. Mr. Türk pointed at the Rabat Plan of Action and its threshold to separate free speech from incitement to violence and stated that while the application of article 20 is ultimately a matter of national lawmaking, this has to be done in line with international human rights law and the guardrails it provides.
The second point raised by the High Commissioner was that advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to violence, discrimination, and hostility should be prohibited in every State. He drew attention to the fact that certain acts may not be considered to incite violence, yet they amount to hate speech. Mr Türk provided examples of discourse against women, people with disabilities, migrants, or LGBTIQ+ persons, he pointed out that underlying these narratives is the notion that ‘some people are less deserving of respect as human beings.’
Thirdly, Mr. Türk called on authorities, public figures, and the public sector to address hate speech, in all societies, through dialogue, education, awareness-raising, and inter-faith engagement. He reminded States of the support available through the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, encouraged them to employ prevention tools to identify and tackle the causes driving hate speech and to step up their efforts to implement HRC resolution 16/18 and the Istanbul process.
Concluding his statement, Mr. Türk ended his statement by criticising the ‘weaponisation of religious differences for political purposes’ and by extending his sympathy to the millions of people offended by acts that target their core beliefs. He reasserted the importance of committing to tolerance and respect, and recognising and valuing difference as a pathway to international peace and security, safe and thriving social and economic fabrics. He urged for ‘more dialogue, more conversations, more building of common understanding and more acts that manifest our conviction that we are all equal’ in our diversity of beliefs, lifestyles, and opinions.
Ms. Ghanea, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, addressed the Council on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures and her own mandate. Ms. Ghanea reaffirmed the call issued by a group of Special Procedures mandate-holders in March 2023, urging greater efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief, foster intercultural dialogue and understanding, protect religious minorities, and combat hate speech while upholding freedom of opinion and expression.
The Special Rapporteur recalled article 18(2) of the ICCPR, according to which ‘no one should be subject to coercion which would impair their freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of their choice,’ and condemned the instrumentalisation of religion, beliefs or their follower to incite hatred and violence.
The Special Rapporteur highlighted that the global increase in public acts of intolerance, especially amid political tensions, poses a risk of rollbacks in societal and educational gains towards ‘understanding and diversity;’ yet, she welcomed the widespread international condemnations of such acts of intolerance, in line with paragraph 5(e) of HRC resolution 16/18.
With regards to the urgent debate’s main topic, i.e. ‘the alarming rise in premeditated and public acts of religious hatred as manifested by the recurrent desecration of the Holy Quran in some European and other countries,’ Ms. Ghanea noted the recent visits of Special Procedures mandate-holders to Denmark, Netherlands, and Sweden, and urged Governments in Africa and Asia to also welcome such visits.
Ms. Ghanea further underlined the position of the Human Rights Committee, which has noted in its General Comment 34 that criticism of religious leaders and commentary on religious doctrine should not be punished and that prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the ICCPR except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20(2). The Special Rapporteur recalled that the threshold required to reach the prohibition under article 20(2) of the ICCPR entails an analysis on a case-by-case basis, examining contextual factors that may meet the aforementioned six criteria outlined in the Rabat Plan of Action. She also stressed that any restriction on freedom of expression must abide by the three requirements of legality, proportionality, and necessity. The Special Rapporteur ended her addresses by appealing to States’ due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against religious minorities, and urging leaders in the political, religious, and civil society realms to condemn intolerance and foster diversity and understanding.
During the ensuing debate, 34 member States, 55 observer States, and 18 civil society organisations took the floor to discuss the rise in premeditated and public acts of religious hatred. Webcasts of those statements can be found here.
Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, and as requestor of the urgent debate, intervened to reiterate its strong condemnation of the ‘premeditated, public and Islamophobic acts of desecrating the Holy Quran.’ H.E. Khalil Hashmi called out the ‘clear pattern of deliberate desecration’ of a book that is sacred to millions around the world, and rejected the conflation of such acts with an exercise of the right to free speech. He highlighted that ‘we are at an inflection point’ in which the stakes are too high at the national, regional and global levels, and called on the Council, and States as duty-bearers, to adopt prevention, deterrence, accountability, and redress measures.
Côte d’Ivoire, on behalf of the African Group, took the floor to urge States to adopt measures to counter acts of religious hatred through the promotion of tolerance, educational systems, and policy frameworks, and to meet their obligations under international law, as enshrined in the ICCPR and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The Ivorian delegate recalled that both the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) urge Governments to adopt measures to counter intolerance and violence based on religion or belief, with the DDPA going further in the recognition of the central role of religion, spirituality, and belief in the lives of millions.
Spain, on behalf of the EU, condemned the burning of the Quran. The Spanish Ambassador affirmed the EU’s long-standing prioritisation of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and its commitment to freedom of expression on an equal footing, considering both rights ‘mutually reinforcing and interdependent.’ H.E. Díaz-Rato recalled the high threshold for considering unlawful incitement to hatred and discrimination, as established by resolution 16/18, the Istanbul Process, the Beirut Declaration on ‘Faith for Rights’, and the Rabat Plan of Action. She reiterated that limitations on freedom of expression must remain an exception, established by an independent judge, and therefore, ‘generic prohibitions such as blasphemy laws are a clear violation of the ICCPR.’
Lebanon, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, condemned the ‘disgraceful act,’ and recalled States’ responsibilities and duties entailed in articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR, as well as articles 9 and 10(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the 2008 Report of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which establish the necessity to ‘avoid as far as possible expressions that are gratuitously offensive to others and thus an infringement of their rights, and which therefore do not contribute to any form of public debate capable of furthering progress in human affairs.’ The Arab Group further called on member States to adopt the resolution by consensus, factoring in the fact that it is ‘consistent with the principles and instruments of human rights that govern the work of this Council’ and that it presents concrete steps to combat contempt for religious belief.
Brazil intervened to condemn Islamophobia and all acts of religious intolerance, and raised concerns about the increasing attacks against religious groups around the world. H.E. Mrs. Cecília Kiku Ishitani called for strengthening the language of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including both freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, and asserted Brazil’s view that the promotion of freedom of opinion and expression ‘should be part of our efforts to prevent and fight religious intolerance.’
Civil society also took the floor during the urgent debate. The World Muslim Congress made a statement condemning the events in Stockholm and stated that these recurring acts across Europe ‘are deliberate and supported by European governments,’ which have ‘failed to halt such Islamophobic acts,’ and called on the Council to demand an apology from Sweden, as well as on EU members to criminalise actions fostering hatred towards Muslims. Article 19 addressed the Council to convey its dismay over the rise of hate based on religious grounds, while underlining that such acts ‘should only be challenged through open space for dialogue, debate and dissent, and not through prohibitions on defamation of religions or similar restrictions.’ The organisation rejected the draft resolution, arguing it would undermine existing efforts to combat religious intolerance, and called upon the Council to commit to resolution 16/18’s ‘positive agenda,’ built upon the understanding of both rights’ mutually reinforcing nature.
The voting on the draft resolution on ‘countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’ was suspended until Wednesday 12th July when it was adopted by vote. The full text can be found here.
The resolution refers to the relationship between freedom of religion or belief, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to freedom of association, by emphasising that they are interdependent, interrelated, and mutually reinforcing; it stresses the role that these rights can play in the fight against all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief; and recalls that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression entails special duties and responsibilities, as stipulated in articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR (PP8 and PP9).
The resolution also underscores the need for holding the preparations of acts of religious hatred to account (OP 1), and calls upon States to examine their national laws, policies, and law enforcement frameworks to identify gaps that may impede the prevention and prosecution of these acts and take steps to plug those gaps (OP2).
In terms of calls to action, the resolution requests the convening of an expert panel discussion, at the Council’s fifty-fourth session, to identify drivers and manifestations of religious hatred, and outline existing gaps that impede the prevention and prosecution of these acts, as well as propose normative, legal, policy and administrative deterrence, both offline and online, to counter such acts (OP4).
Lastly, the resolution requests the High Commissioner to present a report on the panel discussion and provide an oral update on the drivers and root causes of religious hatred, highlighting gaps in existing national frameworks (OP5 and OP6).
Analysis and conclusion
Speaking after the adoption of the resolution, URG Executive Director Marc Limon said:
“The UN human rights system was set up in the 1940s in large part to address issues of religious intolerance and hatred (in the aftermath of the Holocaust). From that time until 2011, States were unable to agree upon a practical, consensual response to religious intolerance, and regularly fell back into arguments on so-called ‘defamation of religion,’ especially following the rise in Islamophobia after 9/11.
The Commission’s and then the Council’s resolutions on defamation of religions were a dead end – it proved impossible for OIC and Western States to agree on the boundary between legitimate free speech and incitement to religious hatred, discrimination, and violence (hate speech).
That is why the adoption of resolution 16/18 and its action plan in 2011 was so significant. It represented the first time OIC (Pakistan, Turkey, the OIC Secretary-General) and Western (UK, US) could come together and agree on a workable, practical, holistic, and consensual approach to addressing religious hatred. Moreover, it was backed up by a process of implementation – the Istanbul Process.
Since then, eight meetings of the Istanbul Process have been held. All of them – especially the most recent – have gathered evidence that the 16/18 action plan is being implemented, through new policies, laws, and projects around the world. This is backed up by URG’s own research which shows that resolution 16/18 is having a real and measurable impact on human rights, especially the rights of members of religious minorities.
While OIC anger at repeated incidents of religious intolerance and hatred (Islamophobia) in the West is understandable (as are the concerns of Western States about attacks against Christian minorities in Muslim majority States, as well as rising anti-Semitism around the world), it is therefore sad and disappointing that the Council has fallen back into old arguments over ‘defamation of religion.’ While the OIC scored a significant diplomatic victory with the vote result in the Council, it is a pyrrhic victory.
What is now important is for OIC, Western, and other States (religious intolerance is a global problem) to now come together and recommit themselves to resolution 16/18, its action plan, and the Istanbul Process. That must include, as an urgent matter, more Western States (as well as States from regions, such as Latin America, that are yet to host a gathering of the Istanbul Process) coming forward with offers to host future Istanbul Process meetings. It should also include a cross-regional joint statement at the 54th session of the Council, led by Pakistan, Turkey, UK, and US, recommitting States to resolution 16/18 and the Istanbul Process.”
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