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The U.S. on Review of the Istanbul Process Progress
July 9, 2013

3rd International Expert Meeting on the Follow-up of Implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18

Statement by Ambassador Michael G. Kozak,
Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Istanbul Process For Combating Intolerance, Discrimination and Incitement to Hatred and/or Violence on the Basis of Religion or Belief

June 19, 2013

3rd International Expert Meeting on the Follow-up of Implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18


The United States is pleased to participate in the third meeting to promote implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18. We thank OIC Secretary General Ihsanoglu for his leadership in inspiring Resolution 16/18. And we thank him for working to promote its implementation through the process he, Lady Ashton and former Secretary Clinton began in Istanbul. He is a valued partner and we commend his efforts on advancing its implementation.

In reviewing these efforts, we assess that there has been significant progress. mWe also believe there is a strong need to continue our joint efforts to promote implementation of 16/18. We have had successes multilaterally in organizing a series of highly substantive meetings of which today’s is the latest. And we have some positive examples of implementation of the steps called for in the resolution within member States. Unfortunately, however, there are many examples of States taking a conflicting approach on religious intolerance, including through passage or enforcement of blasphemy laws. Enforcement of such laws not only infringes on the freedoms of religion and expression; they also exacerbate underlying tensions that may exist between religious communities. And they are often enforced in ways that target members of religious minorities and political opponents.

In the U.S. we learned these lessons the hard way.

There has been a narrative that the U.S. is clinging to its “quaint” 18th Century First Amendment while the rest of the world has progressed. But the reality is the opposite. While the text of the First Amendment has remained the same, its interpretation has changed radically over time.

When the First Amendment was first enacted, we maintained in place blasphemy laws we inherited from our colonial experience. Initially the authors of our Constitution passed the Alien and Sedition Act which criminalized “false, malicious and scandalous” publications about the government. We criminalized criticisms of slavery on the grounds that such criticism could incite violence. We suppressed labor union activity and civil rights advocacy.

We learned a hard lesson. All of these efforts to prevent violence by banning speech ended in violence. Because when you close off peaceful dissent and debate, violence becomes the only alternative.

About sixty years ago, our national consensus changed. Our courts severely limited how speech could be restricted. And we set up the machinery to protect minority views. The result has been greater harmony and peace. Our application of these lessons learned occurred in the same time frame as the development of international human rights law as reflected in the Universal Declaration and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A few decades ago, a notoriously racist and anti-Semitic white supremacist group, wanted to have a march and demonstration in Skokie, ILL. Skokie was a community where with a high concentration of Holocaust survivors among its inhabitants. Many people argued that the march should be banned as an incitement to hatred and extremely offensive to the residents. But rather than ban it, the authorities decided that as long as the group was not calling upon its followers to commit imminent violence, then their demonstration was protected as a form of free speech. So the march was allowed to proceed.

What happened instead was that a large counter-demonstration took place at the same time nearby, and many, many voices spoke up in the media to denounce anti-Semitic attitudes. Both the demonstration and the counter-demonstration took place peacefully, and the negative publicity the racists suffered as a result further isolated them.

So when we speak about freedom of expression, we speak from principle but mostly from experience. We urge the governments that are working to implement the principles in 16/18 to examine the U.S. experience. We believe they would find that a reform of their current laws to a less restrictive approach might well engender greater harmony, as it did in the U.S.

At the experts meeting the United States held in December 2011, we invited practitioners from foreign government ministries of justice and ministries of interior. They discussed two recommended actions from 16/18: First, they discussed effective government strategies to engage members of religious minorities, and training of government officials on religious and cultural awareness. Second, they examined enforcing laws that protect against discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. This conference focused on concrete measures States can take, and we found a number of best practices derived from the experience of a large number of countries. Our report of the meeting, which includes a list of best practices discussed by the participants, is available online. We can also provide you with a copy.

As the result of requests made at that conference, the United States has initiated a foreign assistance program run by our Departments of Justice and of Homeland Security. They provide interested foreign governments help to establish training programs on the two topics that were discussed: government engagement with members of religious communities and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. The first such training was held last week in Bosnia. We had excellent discussions and participation from officials in Bosnia, including Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats living in Bosnia- Herzegovina. We have two more trainings planned as well, one in the North Africa region and one in the Southeast Asia region.

The United Kingdom, in association with Canada, hosted the second implementation meeting in December 2012. This implementation meeting focused on best practices for fostering religious freedom and pluralism. These included promoting the ability of members of religious communities to manifest their religion and building networks with civil society and other partners to promote freedom of religion or belief. A summary of that meeting, which includes a list of ideas made by panelists, is also available online.

Now we are here for this meeting being hosted by the OIC in Geneva. Thus far 16/18 implementation meetings have been held in States rather than at UN facilities so that the message of implementation gets carried directly to domestic audiences and experts. It also allows us to hear from domestic experts who work daily on how to best combat religious intolerance. But this meeting in Geneva provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the progress made thus far, to inform delegations here in Geneva of that progress, and to continue to work together towards future implementation efforts. We are aware that Qatar, for example, has declared its intention to host a 16/18 meeting, perhaps later this year, and other countries are considering hosting next year. We look forward to working with them on those plans.

Through these meetings, we are able to discuss best practices of the specific policies outlined in 16/18. In documenting the reports of those meetings, we are creating a record of best practices that states can use to improve their policies at home. But the key is to turn these compilations of best practices into concrete reforms.

We are pleased with the progress so far and plan to continue to work directly with interested parties. We will continue to provide technical expertise and training, to promote implementation of the steps called for in 16/18. And we welcome any states with interest in receiving such assistance to be in contact with us.

In addition to this progress in supporting the efforts of others, domestically the United States has continued its efforts to practice what 16/18 preaches. We have made strong efforts vigorously to enforce anti-discrimination laws, to speak out against intolerance, to encourage interfaith dialogue, to protect the freedoms of religion and expression, and to engage robustly with members of religious communities. These policies, which are part of 16/18 and which we will discuss further today, are policies that have proven successful in the United States over the past several decades. It is because of our experience on these issues that we are so committed to promoting implementation of 16/18.

So thank you all for participating in this meeting, and thanks to the OIC for organizing it. We look forward to productive and substantive dialogue.