A conversation with UN Special Rapporteur FRANK LA RUE.

frank la rueFrank La Rue has been the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression since 2008. Cherian George interviewed La Rue on 13 January 2012, while the Special Rapporteur was visiting Singapore to attend a regional conference on freedom of expression. For more on the Special Rapporteur’s work, click here.

One of the main developments last year was the loss of steam for the effort to introduce defamation of religion as a key principle at the UN and its replacement with a statement against discrimination. Can you explain the significance of this?

I think it is very important for freedom expression. When we defend freedom of expression, we try to make clear that freedom of expression should be used in the most respectful way. But then, having said that, it doesn’t mean one can censor the expressions that we don’t like. Religion, spiritual and philosophical questions, should be open to debate.

I discussed with the Islamic Conference that I did not want to include defamation of religion in the mandate for two reasons. One, because it was an erroneous concept in itself. Defamation is something that exists for the honour and reputation of individuals, only of individuals. Defamation cannot be used for non-individuals, cannot be used to protect a company, a corporation, a church or a religion or anything else.

Secondly, religions are open to debate. Hopefully, in the most respectful way. I met regularly with OIC and I keep on meeting with them, and I have proven to them in the process that I do want to enhance the construction of a culture of a peace. As the past director of Unesco, Frederico Mayor, used to say, the building of a culture of peace does not mean censorship. Censoring speech on the basis of religion normally is used for political reasons, in every country.

The other issue I raised with them was that when you have a majority religion in a country, or when you have an official religion of the state, [censorship] is normally applied to the detriment of the minority groups. If there is going to be respect for religion, there has to be equality of all religions across the board.

By the way, I must say – and I said it to the Islamic Conference – that the Islamic countries were proposing defamation of religion, but Europe has something similar – the blasphemy laws. For me, blasphemy is a horrible cultural phenomenon but, again, should not be censored or limited by criminal law. I would like to oppose blasphemy in general by being respectful, but that’s something you build in the culture and the traditions and the habits of the people, but not something you put in the criminal code. Then it becomes censorship.

I mentioned this because I didn’t want the Islamic Conference to think that I was pointing just at one religion. I didn’t accept the concept of defamation of religion, regardless of what religion it was referring to.

The two strongest defenders of [defamation of religion] were Egypt and Pakistan in the Islamic Conference group. For many other countries, I must say, it was not as important. Especially the non-Arab African countries and for the Eastern countries like Indonesia, they didn’t feel the same way and that was very clear. So my feeling is that the issue began to slide away.

Now I did recognise, with the Conference, that there is prejudice and that there is stereotyping going on. Sometimes by security forces, sometimes just culturally, Islamic people are being portrayed as terrorists or dangerous people. And that has to be confronted. But that again is not a matter of freedom of expression, that is a matter of the elimination of all forms of discrimination. It deals more with CERD (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination).

Defamation of Religion

For several years, the Organisation of IslamicUN Cooperation (OIC) had been campaigning for “defamation of religion” to be recognised as one of the legitimate justifications of restricting freedom of expression. In 2011, the OIC accepted a statement combatting religious discrimination that excluded the concept of defamation of religion.

I hear conflicting assessments about whether this campaign really is dead or will resurface in some other form.

Well, when they saw they couldn’t put it in the mandate of freedom of expression they tried to include it in the mandate for the rapporteur on freedom of religion. That he should report on the offensive expressions against religion. My colleague, Heiner Bielefeldt, who is the rapporteur on freedom of religion, also made the same arguments that I had done – that he believes in respect for freedom of religion, but that he doesn’t believe in limiting expressions or debate. The other issue is that they are clearly thinking of using the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination. Here, what some countries like Egypt were talking about – but this was before the events in Cairo – was to draft an optional protocol to the Convention that would specifically deal with religious issues. I don’t know if it will resurface, but it hasn’t gone completely away.

We’ve been talking about the international level. Domestically, of course, it is still a big issue and many countries still have blasphemy or defamation of religion laws.

Domestically, it is a problem because I find there is a growing crisis in terms of inter-religious relations, which I think is a pity. In countries that are non-Muslim, and specifically countries that are Christian, there is a growing prejudice against Muslims, and that is very bad. You have Egypt, and there have been all these acts of aggression against Coptic Christians. You find in Iraq, Sunnis and Shias confronting each other. Iran does not accept the Bahai as a religion. They say that the Bahai are a political group and therefore they can repress them, which is not true. I mean, people have the right to define their religion and their principles as they wish.

We have to defend the idea of treating everyone equally. Human dignity is the same around the world. Freedoms are the same. All religions should be practised freely and all religions should be respected, and we should not criminalise expressions for debate on these issues. Every time someone feels terribly offended and an argument of this nature is used to censor opinion it is for a political reason more than anything else.

Lese majeste

Frank La Rue arrived in Singapore from Thailand. Hethai king noted that Thailand’s controversial  lese majeste law – like blasphemy laws – was prone to abuse for political ends. If it had to be retained, it should at least be reformed: penalties were excessive and there should be restrictions on who could file a complaint. He noted that even the royal family was in favour of reforming the law.

What other cases stand out for you?

In the Maldives, the president – who is an interesting man, a member of PEN, he had been a political prisoner himself – told me, look our Constitution has some norms that I cannot agree with but I have to uphold because they are in the Constitution. For instance, there is freedom of religion, but you can only practice it at home; there cannot be public practice of other religions except Islam. And there can be no prayer temples or meeting places except mosques. That’s a very clear violation; it’s an important case and I made a recommendation in my report, but that has not been changed.

I recently wrote letters of concern on the death penalty applied to women for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia. People challenge witchcraft on the basis of feeling offended. For me, I don’t believe in it, but it is the right of people to believe if they want.

In Chile, when the Hollywood film The Last Temptation of Christ arrived, the Supreme Court banned it because it was going against the traditional Christian values of Chilean society. Those who were promoting the film went to the Inter American system to challenge the government’s decision. The Inter American Court of Human Rights ordered the film to be presented, because they said regardless of whether one feels that it is offensive or not, it is a form of art – controversial art, but art – that has a message, so why should we limit it; have a debate on it. It went a step beyond and ordered the Chilean state to modify its Constitution, and they did. So that is one of the most famous cases in terms of freedom of expression.

Back to the point about building a culture of peace – skeptics would say that that is as good as sweeping the problem under the carpet. Is there anything that concretely can be done to build a culture of peace?

I think that is a clear responsibility of the state. You must train children to believe in peace and dialogue, conflict resolution and solidarity, respect for human dignity, and respect for the opinion and culture of others. This is I think very intimately related to the education system.

Secondly, it is the role of the family. In Guatemala, my own country, we are a rather conservative society. Parents used to think that an attitude of respect at the table in an attitude of silence, where only adults could speak. I have been speaking against that, because I say we have to teach our children how to think from an early age, how to express their own values and to have their own opinions and to make their own decisions. And the sooner we begin, the better they will do it.

What about the responsibilities of media?
I have a beautiful example. One of the problems in our countries that went through protracted civil war for so long is that, although the political violence ended, now we have a rise in common crime and organised crime. In El Salvador, many of the newspapers were going for “nota roja”, or “red news” – basically news about violence. Violence sells, so they normally have a photograph of a dead body, or police picking up a cadaver, or the forensic team investigating the scene of the crime.

So the newspapers made a decision – a voluntary decision among the editors, even though they were in competition – that they would never carry a photograph of violence on the front page. Their idea was that when you are walking down the street and see the kiosks, you are not going to have these gory images of cadavers on the front page. They would have them inside, but at least they were not going to have it on the front page. I thought that was an interesting voluntary form of responsibility. So yes, the media plays a determining role.