27 October 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief


While the worst cases of religious intolerance in the past year involved killing in the name of a faith, repression of women was still the most common expression of both intolerance and extremism, Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief told correspondents at Headquarters this afternoon.

“Women can be punished by the State in some countries for not wearing a head scarf, in others they are subjected to sanctions for wearing one”, Ms. Jahangir said at a press conference held after she presented her latest report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian, Cultural) (see Press Release GA/SHC/3960).

In her presentation before the Committee, she had also highlighted such current phenomena as religion being used for political purposes, indoctrination of children to hate other religions ‑‑ which, she stressed, was targeted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child ‑‑ and new technologies being used for incitement of religious hatred.

In the area of women’s repression, she said that there were many different country situations:  “There is no true equality, but there are certain societies where a lot of progress had been made,” she stated.

There were States where women were being mainstreamed through affirmative action, just as there were also some States where, on religious grounds, women were not even allowed to drive a car.  There were also forward-looking States that regulated women’s sexuality and access to birth control through particular religious viewpoints.  Then there were countries like India, were all sorts of traditional restrictions affected women, yet the State valued equality.

She said that, on matters related to the use of new technologies for incitement, she had the same considerations as the Rapporteur on the freedom of expression, particularly when it came to hate speech.  Her mandate considered freedom of expression to hold until human rights were impinged.

The capacity of a Government to deal with such matters as incitement in a way that was fair and reduced tensions between groups was directly linked to the existence of an independent judiciary, one that was not biased, she said, adding that criticism of religion that did not call for violence was not a human rights violation.  It could be called incitement in certain cases, but there must be clear criteria for that charge.

She warned that, in the whole area of religious criticism and incitement, States must be wary of over-legislation, including the adoption of blasphemy laws, saying that education and dialogue among religious leaders and youth of different faiths was more effective at reducing religious tensions than such laws.  In fact, she suggested, using legislation too heavily could increase tensions.

Asked what countries were currently the worst offenders against the freedom of religion and belief, Ms. Jahangir said that the worst cases were in countries she had not been able to visit, commenting that, usually, extreme States did not invite her so she could not make an assessment, though information was available through a variety of sources.

Asked about the current situation in Kosovo, she said that it must be expected that religious tensions, if not resolved, would erupt from time to time in post conflict situations because such tensions were part of the root causes of a conflict.  She noted that it came as a surprise to policymakers that the Orthodox Church was targeted in Kosovo, but it was not a surprise to locals.  In regard to Sri Lanka, she said that there was tension between Singhalese and non-Singhalese over conversion legislation, as decades-old problems played themselves out.

On other situations, she said that, since there was a country rapporteur for Myanmar, she was working with him on the problem of reported discrimination there.  As for Viet Nam, she did have an interest in an a reported attack on a Buddhist monastery, but had not been able to schedule a visit yet because she was scheduled to make a visit to the nearby Lao People’s Democratic Republic, but would look into the situation in Viet Nam in conjunction with that of Cambodia.

Asked finally about her perspective on international action against the defamation of religion ‑‑ such as that proposed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference ‑‑ she said that it was not terminology that she preferred.  If defamation of religion did become incorporated into human rights terminology, it would only serve to undermine human rights, she feared.

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For information media • not an official record