The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

UN Human Rights Council Calls for Punishing Blasphemy (In This Instance, Quran Burning)


Jacob Mchangama (of Justitia, and now a Research Professor at Vanderbilt) has a detailed item about it; an excerpt:

In 1950, Eleanor Roosevelt, serving as the first Chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, was involved in a bitter dispute about the limits of free speech. Stalin's Soviet Union fought tooth and nail to ensure that states should not only be permitted, but obliged to prohibit "hate speech" under international human rights law. Roosevelt issued a stark warning, as she found the Soviet proposal "extremely dangerous." It would "only encourage Governments to punish all criticisms in the name of protection against religious or national hostility," and she warned the commission "not to include… any provision likely to be exploited by totalitarian States for the purpose of rendering the other articles null and void."

Fast forward to July 12, 2023, and a majority of the United Nations Human Rights Council proved Roosevelt prophetic. It did so by adopting a resolution that drives a stake through Roosevelt's vision of an international human rights system that protects oppressed citizens against their oppressive governments.

The resolution calls on member states to, among other things, "address, prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred." The resolution is a response to the increasing number of Quran burnings in Denmark and Sweden by Danish far-right extremist Rasmus Paludan and a few copycats. No doubt Paludan is a bigot and revels in the attention and mayhem that his gratuitous provocations elicit. But however tempting it is to silence an extremist like Paludan, criminalizing the burning of "holy books" because it constitutes "advocacy of religious hatred," as the HRC resolution proposes, is short-sighted and dangerous.

One only has to look at some of the 28 states that voted in favor of the resolution to realize that the real purpose is not to counter hate speech or foster equality and tolerance, but to provide authoritarian governments cover and legitimacy when suppressing dissent.

Among those who supported the resolution we find Pakistan, where blasphemy is punishable by death and where the charge of blasphemy is used to persecute religious minorities and secularists. China too voted in favor of the resolution, despite its atheist political ideology. Apparently, China thinks Muslims should be protected against book burnings in democracies, but not against the Chinese Communist Party's systematic and arbitrary detention of more than one million Uighurs—most of whom are Muslims—in "reeducation" camps. This includes the 57-year-old woman Hasiyet Ehmet, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for teaching Islam to children and hiding copies of the Quran.

Iran's treatment of critics of its theocratic government provides a chilling example of the kind of religious and political oppression that the HRC resolution would help legitimize. In May 2023, the regime hanged Yousef Mehrad and Sadrollah Fazeli Zar for insulting the prophet Muhammad and promoting atheism. Among their supposed crimes was burning a copy of the Quran….

Read the whole thing. Mchangama is a prominent scholar of free speech—the author of Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, and the author or coauthor of various academic articles on the subject, including two that we published (through a blind review process) in the Journal of Free Speech Law.