Having followed the debates on religion and freedom of expression at the United Nations over the last several years, I have become accustomed to passing on bad news, such as a decade of resolutions by the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly “combating the defamation of religions.” Now that there is some good news, almost no one has noticed.
Late last month, the UN issued a new statement on the extent of freedom of speech under international law. It says that laws restricting blasphemy as such are incompatible with universal human rights standards.
The statement came from the Human Rights Committee, the body of eighteen “independent experts” mandated to monitor compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or ICCPR, the 1966 human rights treaty that provides for freedom of opinion and expression and other fundamental rights. The Committee’s general comments represent authoritative interpretations of the provisions of the ICCPR. Unlike the highly-publicized resolutions produced by the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, the provisions of the ICCPR are legally binding to its more than 165 parties.