On July 12, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted to adopt a resolution on “Countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” (A/HRC/53/L.23). Of the UNHRC’s current 47 member states, 28 voted in favour of the resolution, including Pakistan and India, while 12 voted against and seven abstained. In so doing, the UNHRC
condemns and strongly rejects any advocacy and manifestation of religious hatred, including the recent public and premeditated acts of desecration of the Holy Quran, and underscores the need for holding those responsible to account in a manner consistent with obligations of States arising from international human rights law; and calls upon States to adopt national laws, policies and law enforcement frameworks that address, prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred that constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, and to take immediate steps to ensure accountability.
The draft resolution had originally been brought by Pakistan on behalf of the member states of the UN, who are also members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the State of Palestine on July 7. A major impetus behind the resolution was the recent public burning of a Qur’an by an Iraqi citizen outside a mosque in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 28. The OIC met in response to the act and urged its members to “take unified and collective measures to prevent the recurrence of incidents of desecration of copies of the Qur’an.”
One might presume that there would be consensus on a resolution that advocates countering religious hatred, but there were three notable concerns raised with the draft resolution by UNHRC member states on July 11, which highlight the complexity of the issue. Firstly, it was argued that more time should be spent on “meaningful negotiations to find consensus on the resolution” because the Council has managed to maintain a “precious consensus” on freedom of religion and belief for over ten years. Secondly, some suggested that “blanket bans” against religious defamation “paved the way for mass censorship and the silencing of legitimate expression and dissent. Such bans often targeted people from minority religions or beliefs whose very existence may challenge the convictions of majority religious communities or highlight the instrumentalisation of religion by those in power.” Thirdly, “prohibitions on the defamation of religions were contrary to the rights to freedom of expression and religion or belief,” which fuel division and intolerance by limiting interfaith dialogue.
What is important to note is that the resolution, despite being motivated in part by the burning of the Qur’an, is not concerned just with hatred against Islam but religious hatred in general and how such incidents are “manufactured to express contempt and inflame anger; to drive wedges between people; and to provoke, transforming differences of perspective into hatred and, perhaps, violence.” This is in contrast to the last prominent Pakistan-led resolution that was adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on March 15, 2022, which unanimously made March 15 the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. It should be noted how both outcomes signal a tangible influence that Pakistan and the wider OIC have within the UN at the moment.
Such assertions about the West/non-West divide only function to pit states against one another in some ideological battle rather than asking questions about why states might hold a particular opinion on how to counter religious hatred.
While the resolution is intended to prevent division, some have interpreted the adoption of the resolution as a manifestation of the West/non-West divide. In Dawn, it was reported that the outcome “marks a major defeat for Western countries at a time when the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has unprecedented clout in the UN’s top rights body,” noting how the United Kingdom, United States, France and Germany were among those states who voted against the resolution. The article also quotes Marc Limon, the Director of Universal Rights Group, who said that the adoption signalled how the “West is in full retreat at the Human Rights Council.”
Some of the issues central to the criticisms of the draft resolution are indeed commonly made by representatives of Western European and North American states when they consider what steps should be taken to counter religious hatred, such as how measures might constitute censorship, such that the criticism of religions might be misconstrued as religious hatred or an infringement of freedom of expression. Those who are cautious of resolutions such as these or other national measures, like the creation of frameworks to ensure prosecution against acts of Islamophobia, would note, as some speakers did in the UNHCR, that it is individuals who are protected by international human rights law and not religions. One speaker affirmed that it was not the job of the UN to “determine what was holy or not.”
It should be borne in mind how the laws of individual member states help to shape their stance on issues such as this on the international stage. In Pakistan, for example, it is a criminal offence to wilfully defile, damage or desecrate a copy of the Qur’an (Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860). Besides this section and the five added to the penal code under President Zia-ul-Haq, there are five other offences relating to religion that were created and promulgated by the British in pre-partition India as part of the Indian Penal Code 1860. These were maintained by Pakistan, as well as India, after independence. These sections include the criminalisation of acts of defiling a place of worship, insulting a religion or its religious beliefs, trespassing on places of worship or burial and uttering insulting words, as long as there is an intention to wound or outrage religious feeling.
This undermines the assertion that perceptions about this resolution can be neatly summarised as pro-resolution and non-Western on the one hand and anti-resolution and Western on the other, seeing as the positions of at least Pakistan and India have been conditioned by laws originally introduced by a “Western” power. Such assertions about the West/non-West divide only function to pit states against one another in some ideological battle rather than asking questions about why states might hold a particular opinion on how to counter religious hatred.
Since the resolution has been adopted, only time will tell what will happen as a result. An interactive panel discussion of experts is due to be held on the issue of countering religious hatred at the 55th session of the UNHRC to “identify drivers and root causes and human rights impacts of desecration of sacred books, and places of worship as well as religious symbols as a manifestation of religious hatred which could constitute an incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” But just as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights affirmed how all religiously aggravated speeches and acts are “manifestations of utter disrespect,” including against minorities like Ahmadis, Baháʼís or Yazidis, member states must continue to reflect on how their own governments deal with acts of religious hatred. Religious intolerance is one of the greatest and most pervasive challenges to a happy and peaceful co-existence.