PN Member Joost Lagendijk Reflects on Freedom of Expression and Respect for the Sacred

Joost Lagendijk
March 12, 2014

After participating in a conference on freedom of expression and respect for the sacred, PN Member Joost Lagendijk shares his views and insights in his column for the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman.

Last weekend, I participated in a conference on freedom of expression and respect for the sacred organized by the Abant Platform and the African Union (AU) in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. For two days, representatives from different religions and nongovernmental organizations as well as legal specialists and officials from all over Africa discussed the question of under what circumstances limits to freedom of expression can be justified by respect for other people's beliefs and values.

One of the most interesting contributions came from Jody Kollapen, a judge at the High Court of South Africa. Based on several cases he had dealt with in the past, he concluded that the threshold for limitations on freedom of speech should be set high. It should not be based on subjective criteria such as "being offensive" or "hurting feelings" but on clear and undisputable attempts to incite hatred or violence.

Kollapen's South African experiences were in line with my own contribution, which focused on the discussion of this topic at the level of the United Nations. For years the debate, especially at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), was dominated by resolutions on the defamation of Islam and other religions tabled by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 57 Muslim-majority countries, of which Turkey is one. The annual OIC resolutions were adopted, with the help of most developing countries, but were disputed by Western democracies. Their objections were based, among other things, on the fact that these UN resolutions were often instrumental in strengthening rigid domestic anti-blasphemy laws used in Pakistan, for example, to imprison journalists and other peaceful dissidents.

In 2011, the growing controversy over the OIC-sponsored resolutions seemed to have come to an end with the unanimous adoption of a resolution that focused on the protection of individuals rather than religions. As someone pointedly summarized the change: Believers have human rights, religions don't. That same year, a ground-breaking UN legal ruling stated that blasphemy laws are incompatible with the international charter on civil and political rights, which constitutes the basis for all global debates. The only reason states could prohibit or criminalize certain expressions or speech would be "the advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence."

All these UN resolutions and rulings will only be effective, of course, if they are implemented on the ground. In order to promote awareness and understanding of this legal shift from protecting religions to protecting believers, in February 2013 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented the Rabat Plan of Action. The plan offers more concrete criteria to determine when specific speech crosses the agreed red lines but also underscores that court cases are only one way to fight incitement to hatred and violence. To tackle the root causes of intolerance, much more needs to be done: intercultural dialogue, education on pluralism and diversity and pressure on political and religious leaders to refrain from messages of intolerance.

In light of popular calls, in Turkey and elsewhere, to introduce laws at the national and international level to protect religions as such, it is important to note that in this and other UN documents there is a strong emphasis on respect for the rights of individuals. As special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of the UNHRC Heiner Bielefeldt formulated it in his latest report: "It cannot be emphasized enough that freedom of religion does not provide respect to religions as such; instead it empowers human beings in the broad field of religion and belief. The idea of protecting the honor of religions themselves would clearly be at variance with the human rights approach. (...) Respect in the framework of human rights cannot immediately be accorded to the particular contents of religions or beliefs - that is, religious truth claims, norms, practices or identities - but only to human beings as those who hold, cherish, develop and try to live up to such convictions and norms."

This distinction is of crucial importance. At the same time, I fully agree with judge Kollapen, who was convinced that there is no magic solution for each and every case where freedom of expression and respect for the sacred clash. It will always be a challenge to balance various rights in circumstances that differ greatly, in Africa, in Turkey and in the rest of the world.


Originally published on Today'

Photo by soooosh.


PN Member Joost Lagendijk has been Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009. He is now living and working in Turkey as a columnist for the Turkish dailies Zaman and Today's Zaman.


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