Divided world 'on thin ice' in tackling religious hatred, UN told

Human rights debate in Geneva hears of differing views on banning the burning of holy texts

Police cordon off an area outside a mosque in Copenhagen, Denmark, in January 2023, where far-right activist Rasmus Paludan was planning to burn a copy of the Quran. AP
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The world’s fight against religious hatred demonstrated by public acts such as the burning of holy books is “on thin ice” due to disagreements on how to tackle it, the UN’s Human Rights Council heard on Friday.

Pakistani diplomat Zamir Akram said some countries have “lagged behind” in acting to curb incitement, despite international calls to do so after a spate of Quran-burnings in Europe last year.

Attacks based on religion are rising around the world, diplomats heard. Mr Akram, a UN human rights envoy and former Pakistani representative on the council, said provocateurs had “significant room to manoeuvre”.

While last year's public stunts in Sweden and Denmark were widely condemned, views differ on whether to punish such acts as criminal offences. Egypt and Pakistan on Friday sided with calls for tougher laws.

A UN free-speech champion said burnings of the Quran were “deplorable acts” but urged countries to be cautious in turning to criminalisation and consider other measures to promote tolerance.

The UAE called on countries to “recognise that hate speech and extremism can lead to violence and conflict”. It told the council in Geneva of “a need to strengthen respect, tolerance and peaceful coexistence among religions”.

Saudi Arabia said freedom of expression "should not be used inappropriately" and religions should be respected as a matter of human rights.

Mr Akram said the burning of religious texts “has a dangerous past and often is a precursor to violent crimes”.

“Combating religious hate is not about protecting a religion,” he said. "It is about protecting the people who pursue that faith from the human rights impacts of unchecked hate."

The council last year issued a call, supported by the UAE, calling on states to speak out against the burning of sacred texts and punish acts amounting to “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

It was opposed by the US and some European powers but Denmark has since passed a law making it illegal to burn holy books in public. Sweden is reviewing its laws after last year's spate of Quran-burnings soured its relations with Muslim countries.

Mr Akram said the “case for specific prohibition is strong” as he warned a lack of action to tackle the problem could lead to a “breakdown of consensus”.

“The international consensus to combat hatred based on religion stands on thin ice based on differences in ideological approaches,” he said.

“The thresholds generally identified to test incitement levels have been set so high that hate speakers have significant room to manoeuvre.”

Volker Turk, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, said displays of contempt for religious texts were “often fed by a deeper pool of misperceptions and discrimination”.

Irene Khan, UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion, similarly described burnings of the Quran as “deplorable acts” that “must be condemned”.

However, she said hatred “cannot be eliminated by legal prohibition alone” and urged politicians to play their part by speaking out and not pouring fuel on the fire in a bumper year of elections around the world.

“Criminalisation is necessary in the most egregious cases but should be used with caution as it can be counter-productive,” she said.

“States must adopt a range of social policies and programmes to promote diversity, tolerance and respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

Updated: March 08, 2024, 1:36 PM