Anti-blasphemy laws and restrictions on criticism of governments are incompatible with free expression which in turn is essential for the protection of human rights. That was the decision on July 28th of a high-level UN advisory committee that monitors political and civil rights.

 The UN Human Rights Committee of the Geneva-based OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) called the report “an authoritative new commentary on one of the most challenged and sensitive topics in international human rights law – the extent to which the freedom of opinion and expression can be restricted by a State”.

 The Committee said that laws against defamation of public officials and heads of State “should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned”.  It also said that counter-terrorism measures “should be clearly defined to ensure that they do not lead to an unnecessary or disproportionate interference with freedom of expression.”

 The UN Human RightsCommittee, which is a separate body to the UN Human Rights Council, said the report was in response to numerous requests from lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, rights defenders and journalists seeking clarification about what kind of limits, if any, should be placed on free expression. 

 In recent years several Muslim nations have campaigned long and hard in the Human Rights Council and elsewhere to have religious blasphemy and hate speech exempted from freedom of expression protection. Their demands followed the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005, with diplomats saying such events revealed juridical gaps in existing international law.

Western nations countered that no changes are needed because the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) already makes exceptions for defamation and hate speech issues that are covered under civil laws.  Such a definition presents no problem for democratic countries but totalitarian regimes or those applying Sharia law have been able to use ICCPR to their advantage to repress free speech.

 In a separate issue, the Human Rights Committee report also addressed the subject of ‘memory laws’, which it defined as “laws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts which it said are also incompatible with the ICCPR.