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Promoting Respect for Religious Differences
January 13, 2010

Susan Nossel: United States has worked to oppose defamation-based approaches that are inconsistent with fundamental freedoms of speech

By  Suzanne Nossel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
Bureau of International Organization Affairs

The early January life-threatening attack on a Danish cartoonist who had penned satiric drawings of the Prophet Muhammad and the decision, a month earlier, of Swiss voters to ban the construction of new minarets on mosques in their country bring into focus a simmering international debate on the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

In a U.S. context, we tend to see these two sets of rights as intertwined: A core element of the right to speak one’s mind includes the ability to espouse and practice whatever religious beliefs one chooses. Debates over theological differences have been a vibrant part of the American marketplace of ideas since the time of the Pilgrims, and our Constitution’s First Amendment enshrines free speech as a core value.

But what’s intuitive to us at home is not the prevailing view at the United Nations. Over the last decade, we have witnessed a campaign to attempt to counter religious hatred through bans on speech under the rubric of prohibitions on the “defamation of religions.” This effort has taken root in a series of resolutions at the U.N.’s General Assembly in New York and its Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Some U.N. member states supportive of these resolutions are banding together to try to impose a global ban on offensive speech in the form of a binding instrument under international law. The irony of this effort is that the concept of “defamation of religion” has been used to crack down on religious minorities that espouse beliefs deemed by the State to defame a national or majority-supported religion. Moreover, many of the countries that support the defamation of religion apply the concept to protect one religion only, and are — within their own countries — accepting of hostile language and acts that target minority faiths.

These contradictions demonstrate that the drive to impose a global ban on offensive speech will not protect members of all religions on an equal basis, as U.N. resolutions and international legal norms must do. Nor will they address the specific and legitimate concerns about the treatment and mistreatment of Muslim minorities globally. Concerns about the treatment of Muslim minorities warrant concerted action on the international stage, but through steps and measures that actually work, rather than bans on free speech.

The United States has worked strenuously to oppose defamation-based approaches on the basis that they are inconsistent with fundamental freedoms of speech and expressions, including the values endorsed by U.N. member states through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As an alternative to the efforts that would ban speech in order to prohibit “defamation of religion,” we are proposing to achieve the goal of promoting religious pluralism and acceptance of religious difference through the kinds of steps that we have seen be effective in our own country and across the globe: enactment and enforcement of laws prohibiting discrimination; bans on hate crimes; education, training and dialogue to promote religious tolerance. We will be working in the coming months in the hope that countries can come together behind concrete measures that, without interfering with freedom of speech or opinion, will improve the lives of religious minorities worldwide.

Suzanne Nossel joined the Bureau of International Organization Affairs as deputy assistant secretary of state on August 31, 2009. Prior to assuming this position, Nossel was chief operating officer for Human Rights Watch. From 1999 to 2001, she served as deputy to Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and during that period was the lead U.S. representative in the U.N.’s General Assembly in negotiations to settle U.S. arrears.

After leaving government service, Nossel served as vice president of U.S. business development at Bertelsmann Media Worldwide. She subsequently joined the Wall Street Journal as vice president of strategy and operations.

She has written extensively on foreign policy topics, and has significant international affairs experience, including working on South Africa’s National Peace Accord and monitoring elections and human rights conditions in Bosnia and Kosovo. She is the author of a 2003 Foreign Affairs article entitled “Smart Power.”