FOR OVER A DECADE, efforts have been made in several venues at the United Nations to promote the concept that States have an obligation to adopt and enforce laws against the “defamation of religions.” Some of the countries that support these efforts already have such legislation in place in the form of blasphemy or similar laws that prohibit injuring religious sentiments or insulting religious figures and leaders. Those who support the concept of “defamation of religions” argue that prohibitions such as these are necessary to fight incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence, as well as to protect freedom of religion. But the facts tell a very different story.
Such laws risk promoting an atmosphere of intolerance by providing a context in which governments can restrict freedom of expression, thought, and religion, and can result in devastating consequences for those holding religious views that differ from the majority religion, as well as for adherents to minority faiths. The loose and unclear language of these laws empowers majorities against dissenters and the state against individuals. Governments and individuals frequently abuse national blasphemy laws not only to stifle dissent and debate, but to harass rivals, legitimize violence, and settle petty disputes.
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