Thursday, August 4, 2011

Human Rights Committee Addresses Blasphemy in ICCPR

Several outlets are reporting that the United Nations Human Rights Committee has released a new collection of comments on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In paragraph 48 of the comments, the Committee addresses blasphemy laws. With my explanations interpolated, it states that:

"Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant ["Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law"]. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of article 19, paragraph 3 [allowing restrictions on freedom of expression only to protect national security, public health and morals, or the rights and reputations of others] as well as such articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26 [guaranteeing equal protection, religious freedom, and more]. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith."

It is unclear to my mind whether this comment is significant. The Committee's broad statement against blasphemy laws is counter-balanced by reference to a notable exception (Article 20, Para. 2) that incorporates the exact rationale that modern supporters often give for the existence of blasphemy legislation: the need to prevent religious hatred and offence.

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