New U.N. Resolution Steers Away from 'Defamation of Religions' Concept

The U.N. Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution on religious intolerance that freedom watchdogs say marks a significant step away from the highly criticized "defamation of religions" concept.

On Thursday, the inter-governmental body adopted the "Resolution on Combating Intolerance and Violence against Persons Based on Religion or Belief," calling upon U.N. states to adopt measures and policies to promote the full respect and protection for places of worship and religious sites, and to take measures in cases where they are vulnerable to vandalism or destruction.

The 47-member state body also called for strengthened international efforts to foster a global dialogue for the promotion of a culture of tolerance and peace at all levels, based on respect for human rights and diversity of religions and beliefs.

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It did not, however, speak out against the "defamation of religions," which the Organization of the Islamic Conference has been lobbying the United Nations to make a human rights violation since 1999.

"The resolution properly focuses on protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, instead of protecting religions from criticism," noted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in welcoming Thursday's resolution.

"Unlike the defamation of religions resolution, the new consensus resolution does not call for legal restrictions on peaceful expression, but rather, for positive measures, such as education and awareness-building, to address intolerance, discrimination, and violence based on religion or belief," the bipartisan federal body added.

For the past decade, OIC has sought to criminalize words and actions perceived as attacks against religion – particularly Islam – claiming that there is "need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred in general and against Islam and Muslims in particular."

According to the Islamic organization, the defamation of religions "could lead to social disharmony and violations of human rights."

Critics of OIC's efforts, however, argue that support for such a concept would be dangerous as it would legitimize national blasphemy laws used by countries such as Pakistan to silence Christians and other religious minorities, as well as Muslims who do not conform to the government's ideas.

"The defamation concept undermines individual rights to freedom of religion and expression; exacerbates religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence; and provides international support for domestic blasphemy laws that often have led to gross human rights abuses," USCIRF noted Thursday.

In a separate statement Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added, "The United States strongly supports today's resolution, which rejects the broad prohibitions on speech called for in the former 'defamation of religions' resolution, and supports approaches that do not limit freedom of expression or infringe on the freedom of religion."

With the new resolution adopted, religious freedom advocates say the next step is for countries that have blasphemy laws to eliminate them.

"Today's adoption of this resolution by the UN Human Rights Council is an important statement that must be followed by sustained commitment," remarked Clinton.

USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo added, "USCIRF is gratified that this new resolution recognizes that religious intolerance is best fought through efforts to encourage respect for every individual's human rights, not through national or international anti-blasphemy laws."

Created by the UN General Assembly in 2006, the U.N. Human Rights Council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. The main purpose of the 47-U.N. member state council is to address situations of human rights violations and to make recommendations on them.

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