FIDH commends the millions who took part in the 11 January 2015 Marches in France and other parts of the world, in reaction to the killings in Paris targetting Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket. Witnessing the reactionary demonstrations taking place in response to Charlie Hebdo’s most recent publication, FIDH feels especially compelled to analyse their significance and outcomes.
Recent marches in support of freedom of expression, against anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, against the killings: these democratic values were chanted by demonstrators on 11 January.
It is up to us all to maintain this momentum. Translating it into action is the responsibility first and foremost of our governments.
In France, the Ligue des droits de l’Homme has highlighted the extent of the work needed to repair the divisive situation that ofcurrently characises the Republic, (9 January 2015, Joint Press Release of LDH, LICRA, SOS Racism and MRAP). We endorse the Ligue and the NGOs worldwide that have rallied since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The global scope of this issue must not be under-estimated.
The defence of freedom of expression has not had the necessary international support
It has long been understood that freedom of expression “does not apply only to ’information’ or ’ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or indifferent, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any other sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there can be no democratic society” (European Court of Human Rights, Handyside Case, 1976).
International law explicitly outlines the limits of freedom of expression. This freedom does not include inciting the perpetration or vindication of genocide and crimes against humanity, nor incitement to hate or racial, ethnic or religious discrimination.
Restrictions upon this freedom are also specified, particularly to protect the rights and reputation of others from injury or slander only targeting specific persons, a religion of faith lived according to one’s private and subjective beliefs.
Under international law, these restrictions are only admissible by virtue of national laws that are in keeping with a democratic society, and under very strict conditions (necessity and proportionality), which are to be assessed by a judge, on a case by case basis.
As such, freedom of expression is not opposed to freedom of religion. On the contrary, it is an indispensable complement, guaranteeing a diversity of opinions, beliefs and convictions, and the freedom to express these.
These principles were reaffirmed and clearly stated following the international controversy surrounding the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in Denmark. The United Nations held a series of consultations between experts of all regions to identify and specify the scope of the restrictions accepted under international law regarding freedom of expression. A declaration and action plan were adopted at the end of these consultations in Rabat in February 2013. This Plan of Action recognised especially that “-blasphemy laws are counter-productive, since they may result in de facto censure of all inter-religious or belief and intra-religious or belief dialogue, debate and criticism, most of which could be constructive, healthy and needed. In addition, many blasphemy laws afford different levels of protection to different religions and have often proved to be applied in a discriminatory manner”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has also acknowledged that “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20 , paragraph 2, of the Covenant.” (General Comment 34 on Article 19 on freedom of opinion and expression in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted July 2011).
In spite of these principles, national laws have been misconstrued and turned into instruments that violate freedoms rather than protect them. This is particularly the case in respect of laws penalising blasphemy, which continue to exist in over fifty countries. (See: http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/Compendium-Blasphemy-Laws.pdf )
Many of those countries in which there is political or religious opposition to freedom of expression, particularly through caricature or ridicule, broadly justify violations of this freedom to augment their own power and influence.
The first victims of such violations are those giving voice to independent thought, like Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who sought to defend a more liberal vision of Islam and much needed reforms in his country. His punishment was 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam”, ten years in prison, an additional ten years of not being allowed to leave the country and a fine of €20,000.
The human rights defenders who defend these arbitrarily accused individuals risk their lives. A member of the Pakistani Human Rights Commission, Rashid Rehman, was assassinated on 8 May 2014 in Pakistan. He had been representing an individual accused of blasphemy and had received death threats while pleading his client’s case before a judge. The Pakistani authorities refused to protect him.
Then there is Aminatou Mint El Moctar, chair of the Association of Women Heads of Households in Mauritania. She was the target of a fatwa in 2014 simply because she defended those prosecuted for apostasy or harassed by radical Islamist groups.
In Vietnam, Bui Thi Minh Hang, Nguyen Van Minh and Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh, were sentenced in December 2014 to several years of imprisonment for causing public disturbances because they defended freedom of religion and conviction.
In about 80 countries, merely informing people of universal human rights violations, let alone advocating that they be stopped, is synonymous with major risk (see the latest annual reports from the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, https://wearenotafraid.org/en
Those engaged in such activities risk being falsely prosecuted and arbitrarily detained, unfairly convicted, tortured and subjected to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. NGOs, independent media outlets and their staff face risks of assassination, suspension, dissolution, and being labelled by vigilante groups as traitors, apostates, terrorists, separatists or extremists.
There is now an urgent need to challenge the twenty or so oppressors of freedom of conscience who rushed to Paris to proclaim their condemnation of terrorism. These leaders need to be reminded that countering this phenomenon requires guaranteeing people their freedoms. These leaders have returned from Paris even more determined to continue their liberty-strangling practices.
Since that day, several demonstrations took part acrosqs the world, in protest against the support given to the French satirical newspaper. While the right to peacefully demonstrate one’s religion or belief is inalienable, we deplore the attacks that have arisen on such occasion against the Christian community opf Niger, or against other minorities in other parts of the world. They are unacceptable. Other such demonstrations, like that organised by Ramazan Kadyrov in Grozny on 19 January, merely seek to exploit religion for political ends.We expect more than declarations from world leaders. We expect unprecedented international mobilisation, as well as the staunch defence of those repressed for defending freedom of expression and religion or belief.
It is essential to discern to what extent so-called anti-terrorist policies developed since 11 September 2001 have contributed to the spectacular rise in ideological movements founded on terror.Images of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib have not only fuelled terror but have aided terrorists to form their own macabre organisations culminating in the staged hostage executions carried out by Daesh.
Some “democratic” leaders have sought to legitimise serious human rights abuse, like the use of torture. It is inconceivable that arbitrary detention and torture in secret centres, extraordinary rendition, summary executions carried out via drone strikes, the massive interception of personal data, and absolute impunity for the authors of these practices would not provide fodder for terrorist recruiters. Such acts enhance the attractiveness of their deadly business and trivialize human rights abuse.
Honest assessment is also required into the patent failure of the invasion and occupation of Iraq since 2003, the dramatic failure to prevent the Syrian tragedy for almost four years, and the need to promote a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The global perception of injustice surrounding the permanent colonisation of the Palestinian territories has not only fuelled justified criticisms of a double standard, but also jihadist recruitment networks. It is the responsibility of governments to recognise and, above all, find ways to address this situation.True democracy is not a matter of rhetoric. It is the ongoing duty owed by leaders to their fellow citizens to realise human rights and ensure effective freedom, including the right to security, especially in the most difficult of times See FIDH report « Counter-terrorism measures and human rights : keys to compatibility », Octobre 2005)
Discerning how to resist the temptation to engage in “Patriot Act-ism”, to enhance security whilst protecting freedoms rather than restricting them, may very well be the challenge at hand. We believe that the necessary condition for achieving critical results are educating our youth on citizenship, gender equality, fighting against social inequality and promoting universal human rights, within societies which welcome each and every one, whichever their religious or philosophical beliefs.
The FIDH Executive Bureau
Freedom of Expression