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Freedoms of religion and of expression: “Twin rights” in fighting incitement to hatred

Fighting hatred

09 March 2016

GENEVA (9 March 2016) – Any attempt to fight intolerance, stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination and incite to violence based on religion or belief should make use of both the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, today said United Nations human rights expert Heiner Bielefeldt.

“There is widespread perception that the rights to freedom of religion or belief and to freedom of opinion and expression are in opposition to each other,” the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief noted during the presentation of his latest report* to the UN Human Rights Council.

“While freedom of expression seems to signal a ‘green light’ to all sorts of provocation, freedom of religion or belief seems to give a ‘stop sign’ instead,” he said. “That kind of misunderstanding typically originates from the view that freedom of religion or belief protects religions or belief systems per se.”

In his report, the human rights expert considers that both rights are closely related in law and in practice. “They both protect unconditionally a person’s inner realm of thinking and believing, where no restrictions can be justified on whatsoever grounds,” he states.

Mr. Bielefeldt explained that external manifestations of both rights can be limited, but it is subject to high thresholds as set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “Some problematic restrictions include blasphemy laws, unclear anti-hatred laws and criminalization of ill-defined superiority claims,” he pointed out.

“While both rights share many similarities, each right has its specific features,” the expert added. “Freedom of religion or belief protects a broad range of manifestations in worship, observance, practice and teaching which go beyond the ‘expression’ of one’s belief.”

The Special Rapporteur also noted that the “synergies between both rights exist in different formats” such as interreligious communication, frank public discourse and policies of the Government and other actors to publicly condemn incitement to acts of hatred.

Mr. Bielefeldt called on all States to proactively share within the Istanbul Process their experiences and best practices when implementing the Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 to fight intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of persons based on religion or belief, as well as discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against them.

He also recommended all Governments to follow the Rabat Plan of Action as guiding tool for better understanding what freedom of expression means and how to define incitement to hatred.

(*) Read the Special Rapporteur’s report:

Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt assumed his mandate on 1 August 2010. As Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, he is independent from any government, and acts in his individual capacity. Mr. Bielefeldt is Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. From 2003 to 2009, he was Director of Germany’s National Human Rights Institution. The Special Rapporteur’s research interests include various interdisciplinary facets of human rights theory and practice, with a focus on freedom of religion or belief. Learn more, log on to:

During the current Human Rights Council’s session the Special Rapporteur also presented his reports on:

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Download the “Rapporteur's Digest on Freedom of Religion or Belief”:

Check the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief:

For more information and media requests please Ms. Chian Yew Lim (+41 22 928 9310 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected]  

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])  

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