The UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), Ahmed Shaheed, has said that states that have blasphemy laws “should repeal them because of their stifling impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and on the ability to engage in a healthy dialogue about religion”.
In his first interim report to the UN General Assembly, now published online, Shaheed says “advocates of anti-blasphemy laws should note that their application more often than not invites a cycle of hatred and hostility, reinforcing prejudice and triggering a spiral of angry and violent responses”.
Ahead of the presentation of his report in New York in September, the Rapporteur said “anti-blasphemy, anti-apostasy or anti-conversion laws, some of which are falsely presented as ‘anti-incitement’ legislation, also often serve as platforms for enabling intolerance”.
In his report he also noted that “despite UN efforts to strengthen international protection for freedom of religion or belief, acts of intolerance have been on the rise in many parts of the world, revealing an alarming gap between international norms and domestic practice”.
He said the Universal Periodic Review, a process in which the UN Human Rights Council reviews member states’ human rights records, “has been underutilised as a mechanism for promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief” since the majority of issues reviewed, and concerns raised, were focusing on other topics.
‘Scope of violations extensive’
Meanwhile a report presented earlier this week urged the UK and other governments to take practical measures to turn the rhetoric of ‘freedom of religion or belief’ into reality, to protect the millions who are vulnerable to violence, discrimination and disadvantage as a result of its abuse.
Despite 243 states having signed international human rights’ provisions on FoRB, the scope of violations is extensive, according to the report.
Shaheed, in the foreword to the report, said: “Despite global commitments to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief, the scale of violations remains enormous, with almost 80% of the world’s population living in countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of restrictions and/or hostilities towards certain beliefs.”
Earlier this month the Special Rapporteur visited Uzbekistan, which he urged to invest more time in protecting religious freedom in its ongoing reforms rather than see religion as a threat. “Resilience against religious extremism can be built on strengthening diversity as well as freedom of religion or belief,” he said, adding that religious freedom rights “cannot be sacrificed in preventing or countering violent extremism”.
A report from Forum 18, a regional news agency, in September said the Uzbek regime continues to hold its citizens “in constant fear”, subjecting them to surveillance, threats, raids, fines and short-term imprisonments.
Uzbekistan regards Christianity as alien and destabilising: its authorities closely monitor religious groups. The country was ranked 16th on Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.