55th Session of the Human Rights Council, Panel discussion on countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”

55th Session of the Human Rights Council, Panel discussion on countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”
Cadena SER/ Jonas Gratzer

8th March, 2024
Elena Vallejo Secadas
Team UN Geneva Researcher,
Global Human Rights Defence

The Human Rights Council in its resolution 53/1 decided to organize an interactive panel discussion of experts at its fifty-fifth session to identify drivers, root causes and human rights impacts of the desecration of sacred books and places of worship, as well as religious symbols, as a manifestation of religious hatred that could constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Volter Türk opened the panel, expressing his revulsion at the harassment and persecution of people of different faiths, including the desecration of religious texts and temples, discrimination and hate crimes. He reported that his office is working on recommendations to combat these hate crimes and calls on states to provide insights into the motivations, root causes and consequences of these crimes, especially against minorities.

In his intervention, the High Commissioner expressed his concern about the increase of such practices in electoral processes where conspiracy theories, including replacement theory and scapegoating of minority groups, are used. 

He urged states to develop anti-discrimination legislation and national justice institutions to participate in peer learning programs and to follow the recommendations of his office.

He stressed that international human rights law does not protect doctrines or ideas, but the people who profess them, and that a balance must be found between the defense of freedom of expression, which includes criticism, however distasteful, and the protection of individuals from hate crimes. In this respect, he cited the Rabat action program.

He stressed the importance of collaboration with civil society, including technological companies, for combating the spread of hate online, and reported that his office is working with these companies to regulate these issues.

The Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations, H.E. Mr. Zamir Akram, said that hatred is the first line of attack against human dignity. He raised alarm about cases of the burning of holy books, such as the Quran, and pointed out that two of the most terrible events in recent history, the Holocaust and the Bosnian genocide began with the burning of books, reiterating that these acts are often precursors to violent attacks on minorities.

The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, Irene Khan, insisted on the Rabat Plan of Action as an essential tool to differentiate between legitimate speech and hate crime. She also argued that the protection of religion is not a legitimate reason to restrict freedom of expression; however, states must take all necessary measures to protect, especially religious minorities, from hate attacks. The focus is not only on states, but also on the collaboration and ownership of the Rabat Plan by technology companies and platforms to respect and defend against online hate crimes.

In her final intervention, Ms. Khan, responding to Israel's question, and references to the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, recalled the need to differentiate anti-Semitism as hatred towards a race and religion with criticism of Israel as a political entity.

In her intervention, Ms. Kobauyah Tchamdja Kpatcha, vice chair of the Human Rights Committee, deplored the existence of people, both political and religious leaders, who use the grey areas of freedom of expression to incite hatred. She defended the need to legislate surgically on this difference, following the principles of the Rabat Action Plan, assessing each offense in detail, and promoting a culture of tolerance and mutual respect. She also defended the need for collaboration between the different society stakeholders, state institutions and the Treaty Bodies, treaty bodies, special rapporteurs, and other mechanisms of the Human Rights Council and the United Nations.

The last speaker of the panel, Mr. Thiago Alves Pinto, was a bit more discordant, harshly criticizing the legislations that protects the sacred excessively, arguing that they have been used throughout history to attack different political leaders, scientists, and spiritual leaders, among others. He believes that all new beliefs begin by challenging the protected or sacred and turning the people who follow them into minorities who must be protected from the laws protecting the sacred. He made a historical critique of UN resolutions that prioritize the protection of religions to the detriment of individuals. Furthermore, he also harshly criticized states that implement such laws, as well as states that do not recognize people fleeing from these laws as refugees.

In their speeches, all the speakers stressed the importance of political will to put an end to this scourge, as they believe that there are mechanisms and tools for this purpose. They also stressed that the fight against religious hatred is not about defending a religion, but about defending the people who profess it, and that the fight against religious hatred should not be understood as an attack on freedom of expression.

Many of the countries that intervened in the session defended the need to fight against these acts that constitute hate crimes while respecting the limits of freedom of expression, asking the experts for measures and references to achieve this balance. The experts cited the importance of the aforementioned Rabat action plan, where a table with differentiating criteria for assessing individual offences can be found. The United States highlighted the need to effectively implement Human Rights Council resolution 16/18 and President Biden's efforts in this regard to end religiously motivated hatred and attacks.