Clinton Criticizes Religious Defamation Laws as UN Prepares to Vote
International religious freedom observers mostly praised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's opposition to anti-defamation policies because such restrictions would limit free speech.
The United Nations General Assembly is expected to vote soon on a pending anti-defamation resolution sponsored by the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
"Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion," Clinton said at a press conference on Monday. "I strongly disagree."
"The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions," Clinton said. "These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse."
Experts consider the UN anti-defamation effort mostly a reaction to the 2005 publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper that depicted the prophet Muhammad. Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, is lobbying against the resolution this week because he fears people could be criminalized for converting from Islam or speaking against Islamic teachings.
"The United States is making an unequivocal statement while defining the rights of individuals versus religious beliefs," Moeller said. "You cannot provide a religious belief system the same level of protection that you do for a human."
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute, expressed concern over another Human Rights Council resolution on freedom of opinion and expression passed in early October: "[The council] expresses its concern that incidents of racial and religious intolerance, discrimination and related violence, as well as of negative racial and religious stereotyping continue to rise around the world … and urges States to take effective measures, consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat such incidents."
The resolution, proposed by the United States and Egypt, does not include the term "defamation of religion," but Shea worries that such language could criminalize preaching that another religion is false.
"They're introducing language about religious hatred or negative religious stereotyping that is quite new and immediately seized upon by some of the restrictive governments in the world," Shea said.
Shea welcomed Clinton's Monday speech, but wonders why the administration has not appointed an ambassador of international religious freedom.
"Especially when you look at the different czars and envoys that have been appointed in all areas, it doesn't signal religious freedom as a priority," Shea said. "Hillary Clinton spends a few minutes on a press conference, but who's following this day in and day out?"
In her speech on Monday, Clinton said that the best antidote to intolerance is a combination of legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, government outreach to minority religious groups, and defense of freedom of both religion and expression.
Religious Freedom Offenders
Clinton made her remarks while releasing the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom, which highlighted several countries "where violations of religious freedom have been noteworthy" over the last year: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Laos, Malaysia, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Yemen.