Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression – United Nations Human Rights 75 Pledge by Atheist Ireland

Atheist Ireland has made a pledge to the United Nations Human Rights 75 initiative to oppose laws against blasphemy and promote freedom of expression.

1. Background to Atheist Ireland

Atheist Ireland is a voluntary advocacy group based in Ireland. We have Special Consultative Status at the United Nations. We promote atheism, reason, and ethical secularism by political lobbying and human rights interventions. We also work with atheist and secular advocacy groups in other countries.

We led a successful decade-long campaign to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Irish constitution in 2018. We consistently raised the blasphemy law with the Irish Government and Department of Justice, as well as at the United Nations, OSCE and the Council of Europe.

When promoting secularism, we explicitly say that we would be as opposed to the state promoting atheism as we are to the state promoting religion. We campaign on secular issues in alliance with the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland.

We have previously made submissions to, and have participated in, UN Human Rights sessions about Ireland under the UPR, ICCPR, ICESCR, CERD, CEDAW, and Rights of the Child, as well as to the Council of Europe and the OSCE.

When the UN was questioning Pakistan under the ICCPR in 2017, we made a joint submission and sent a joint delegation to Geneva, from Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland.

2. Our Pledge

Atheist Ireland pledges to oppose all laws against blasphemy or against criticism of secular beliefs covered under Article 18, and to promote the rights of all persons to freedom of expression and manifestation of religion or belief, regardless of the critical nature of the opinion, idea, doctrine or belief or whether that expression shocks, offends or disturbs others, so long as it does not cross the threshold of incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

For clarity, we have made an earlier pledge to promote the consistent use of the full phrase ‘freedom of religion or belief’). The ‘belief’ aspect of this phrase refers to nonreligious philosophical convictions worthy of respect in a democratic society. This includes but is not limited to atheism as a positive belief and not merely the absence of a religious belief.

We also pledge to lobby for all United Nations bodies, conference sessions, policies, documents, member states, equality and other laws, civil society organisations, media outlets, and other relevant stakeholders and events to promote these rights, and in particular to:

  • Abolish all laws against blasphemy or criticism of secular beliefs,
  • Use the phrase ‘prejudice’ instead of ‘hatred’,
  • tackle prejudice based on religion or belief through education,
  • and tackle prejudice-motivated crime through the law,
  • while protecting the right to freedom of expression,
  • based on human rights principles and standards.

3. The case against blasphemy laws

Here are extracts from Atheist Ireland’s contribution to the Irish Constitutional Convention on blasphemy laws:

From speech by Michael Nugent, Chairperson Atheist Ireland

“You have rights, your beliefs do not. That is the essence of freedom of conscience. You can respect my right to believe that there is no God, while not respecting the content of my belief. And I can respect your right to believe that there is a God, without respecting the content of your belief. But blasphemy laws discriminate against atheists. They treat religious beliefs and sensitivities as more worthy of legal protection than atheist beliefs and sensitivities.”

From speech by Professor David Nash, Oxford Brookes University

“I have researched and published on blasphemy for 20 years, and have advised a number of western governments for 10 years. Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, UN special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, has asked me to convey this to you: There is a growing consensus within the human rights community that we have to move away from anti-blasphemy laws which generally have intimidating effects on religious belief minorities, dissenters, converts and others. [We should instead] try to overcome stereotypes and prejudices by enhancing inter-religious and intercultural communication.”

From speech by Jane Donnelly, Human Rights Officer Atheist Ireland

“Asia Noreen Bibi is the face of blasphemy laws. She is a 43-year-old Christian mother from Pakistan, who faces execution by hanging after being convicted of blasphemy. And two politicians who supported her have been murdered for doing so. During all of this, the Pakistani Government was leading the Islamic States at the United Nations in calling for an extension of blasphemy laws around the world, using wording taken directly from Ireland’s new blasphemy law.”

4. Balancing the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression

Because religion is one of the characteristics that is protected under most equality laws, there is a danger that other laws that infringe on freedom of expression might evolve into becoming a blasphemy law by another name. One example is laws against various offences described using phrases such as ‘hate’ or ‘hate speech’ or ‘hate crime’.

Laws should be accurate, understandable, and enforceable. Their words and definitions should be coherent, universal and inclusive, with clear and justified boundaries, and free from ideological assumptions. A person should be able to know whether or not they are breaking it. Laws based on ambiguous or emotive words cannot do this. ‘Hate crime’ laws are not about hate. They are fundamentally about prejudice and bias on the basis of being a member of a group with common characteristics. Such laws often add to this confusion, by including definitions of ‘hate’ that are clearly not definitions of hate.

We believe such laws should use the phrase ‘prejudice-motivated crime’ instead of ‘hate crime’. There are two aspects to prejudice-motivated crimes.

  • Prejudice is the internal motivation. It can range from bias to hatred, filtered through tribal paranoia, a desire to bully, or a desire for revenge for some real or imagined injustice.
  • Hostility is the outward behaviour. It can range from discrimination to harassment, intimidation and violence, and ultimately to oppression and persecution by States or terrorists.

These differences mean that we must challenge them in different ways.

  • We can only change prejudice, bias and hatred by education, political and community leadership, and social pressure. We cannot change how people think and feel by making it illegal. However, we can use education-related measures to help people to understand and empathise with people who have different personal characteristics.
  • On the other hand, we can challenge hostility, discrimination and violence by making it illegal. And we can make prejudice an aggravating factor when it is a motive for an existing crime.
  • While doing both of the above, we should not criminalise people merely because of what they say or publish, no matter how repugnant their views, unless what they say or publish is defamatory, or a direct incitement to violence or another crime.

Laws that balance the rights of freedom of religion, belief, and expression should be based on human rights principles. These include:

  • In 2019, the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, reported to the 40th session of the Human Rights Council.
  • In 2008, the Venice Commission published a report on the relationship between Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion.
  • In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a report to the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council, published the Rabat plan of action on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred.
  • In 2019, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the freedom of opinion and expression, published a report to the United Nations General Assembly on the human rights law that applies to freedom of expression, with particular regard to online ‘hate speech’.

Atheist Ireland described these principles in more detail in the following submission to the Irish Department of Justice’s consultation on hate crime and hate speech laws.

Atheist Ireland