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World experts meet to discuss Freedom of Expression and Advocacy of Religious Hatred

Twelve experts from around the world participated in a ground-breaking seminar intended to clarify the links between articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of expression and advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

Experts from different legal traditions discuss he links between articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR - © OHCHR“Let us be clear about the stakes in our discussion,” said High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay as she opened the seminar on 2 October. “By addressing possible limitations to a fundamental right, this seminar also tests whether our commitment to the full and interdependent set of human rights is truly genuine, and not expediently used in the pursuit of political agendas.”

She emphasized that “that human rights are genuinely universal and deeply rooted in all civilizations and cultures. They are not the product and the exclusive preserve of specific doctrines and traditions. Nowhere is this idea more important than in the discussion about freedom of expression and its possible limitations.”

Martin Uhomoibhi, President of the Human Rights Council, told the participants in the seminar “It is obvious that one of the most critical challenges facing all governments the world over today is how best to ensure the full enjoyment of freedom of expression and combating incitement to religious hatred. We need to address it outside the Council so that we are better prepared to deal with it.”

One of the 12 participating experts, Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief Asma Jahangir, said there was a clear understanding among the experts that governments should take action in cases of advocacy of religious hatred that constituted incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

“Whatever action is taken, that must not subvert the overall respect for the freedom of speech,” she told journalists attending a press briefing.

One of the clear messages that came out of the two-day discussion was that governments already have at their disposal various tools and capacities which should be used to build a tolerant society, such as education, interfaith dialogue and intercultural exchanges, Jahangir explained.

It was hoped the seminar would “create a deeper understanding of how national laws could conform to international law so that human rights could be respected all around,” she said.

Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, a civil society group that promote and defends freedom of expression agreed with Jahangir, saying that “One of the key aspects reiterated throughout the meeting from a wide range of experts coming from very different disciplines and traditions was indeed the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, particularly freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and, indeed, article 20 which is about [the prohibition of] hate speech and incitement to hatred.”

Over 200 observers including representatives from Governments, other UN agencies, regional organizations, the media and non-governmental organizations also took part in the seminar.

October 2008