As the UN General Assembly begins its new session, a colossal gulf is again visible – a gulf between what international human rights law and UN resolutions say, and what some member nations do. A concrete effort must be made by the international community to close this gulf.
One glaring example is how some countries treat people who dare to express dissenting views about religion. A number of nations uphold and enforce laws that punish their own citizens for religious dissent or what they view as deviance from sacred norms. Under such laws and practices, dissidents may find their views labeled as blasphemous, defamatory, or insulting to religious symbols, figures, or feelings. If they are tried and convicted, some face draconian punishments, including execution.
The 2013 Annual Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom highlights the most outrageous example: In Pakistan at least 17 individuals remain on death row on blasphemy convictions, while 20 more are serving life sentences. At the same time, violent religious extremists have taken the law into their own hands, murdering individual Pakistanis accused of blasphemy.
In Pakistan’s most heavily publicized case, Asia Bibi, a Christian farm worker and mother of five, was sentenced to death in November 2012, allegedly for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. She remains in jail and on death row.
An Egyptian law bans “contempt” or “defamation” of religions. Since President Hosni Mubarak’s departure, there has been a spike in such cases affecting Muslims and disproportionately Coptic Christians. For example, Ayman Yousef Mansour, a Christian, and Alber Saber, an atheist activist, both received three-year prison sentences in 2011 and 2012, respectively, for insulting Islam, God, or the Prophet Muhammad. Mr. Saber fled the country; Mr. Mansour is still in prison. Earlier this year, Bassem Youssef, a comedian and satirist, was charged with “insulting Islam” on his popular television program.
Saudi Arabia uses blasphemy charges to suppress discussion and debate and silence dissidents against the government’s own interpretation of Sunni Islam. In July, Saudi Arabia sentenced Raif Badawi, the editor of the Free Saudi Liberals website, to 600 lashes and seven years of incarceration for blasphemy and other charges. And since February 2012, authorities have detained Hamza Kashgari, a blogger who faces possible blasphemy charges. When commissioners from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom visited the kingdom this year, officials dubiously claimed that they are holding him for his own safety and to “educate” him to express his opinions in a more measured way.
Lest anyone think that powerful blasphemy codes are restricted to nations with majority Muslim populations, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law on June 30 that bans expression “causing offense to the sentiments of religious believers.” Enacted with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate, the law states that “public acts held near religious sites that show blatant disrespect for society and intended to offend believers’ religious sentiments” would be penalized by fines of up to 300,000 rubles (more than $9,000) or forced labor or prison terms of up to one year. Offenses committed inside religious sites received stiffer penalties. The law responded to the rock group "Pussy Riot" and its "punk prayer" in Christ the Savior Cathedral, which offended many.
By maintaining and enforcing such laws, these and other nations not only violate international human rights law, they flatly reject UN resolutions that correctly state that the way to fight insults and other intolerant expression is with argument and persuasion, not prohibition, and that expression should be criminalized only if it incites imminent violence.
They also contradict the views of the UN Human Rights Committee, which deems blasphemy laws “incompatible with the [International] Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights],” a treaty to which 167 countries, including Pakistan, Egypt, and Russia are a party. Such laws also fly in the face of conclusions by international experts convened by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. These experts recently recommended that states repeal blasphemy laws to allow healthy debate and dialogue about religion.
With these violators of religious freedom gathering at the UN, the United States and other rights-supporting countries should ask when they intend to take bedrock freedoms seriously, starting with freedom of religious expression, and hold them accountable for their violations.
Robert P. George is chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Editor's note: The original version of this commentary incorrectly identified the year in which atheist activist Alber Saber was sentenced for breaking Egypt's blasphemy law.