23 September 2008

Miguel Servetus haunts Geneva

The room was still buzzing from the exchanges between Egypt, the President, and Littman when I took the floor to summon the ghost of Miguel Servetus, who was burned alive just outside Geneva in 1553 for defaming religion:

Thank you, Mr President.

We welcome the new Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mr Githu Muigai, and we welcome the call from his predecessor, Mr Doudou Diene, to replace the notion of “the defamation of religions” with the legal concept of incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence.[1] Not only does the former notion have no legal basis, it is a threat to human rights and to religion itself.

Existing instruments such as ICCPR Article 20 already protect believers against expression that constitutes incitement. To go further would be to protect the contents of belief itself. Such protection has no basis in international human rights law. Rights belong to individuals, not ideas.

U.N. resolutions combating the defamation of religions are dangerous, as noted by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms Asma Jahangir, since they can be used to legitimize blasphemy laws that "punish members of religious minorities, dissenting believers and non-theists or atheists”[2]

In Afghanistan, a 23-year-old student named Sayed Pervez Kambaksh sits in prison, convicted of blasphemy for circulating an article critical of wmen's status under Islam.[3] For this he has been sentenced to death. Religion does not need protection from Pervez Kambaksh. He needs protection from those who act in its name.

Ultimately, schemes to safeguard belief by law will defeat themselves since faith flourishes best when left to the free conscience of individual persons.

Geneva is an old city, old enough to have seen the burning alive of Miguel Servetus for heresy on 27 October 1553. Jean Calvin approved, explaining, "There is no question here of man's authority; it is God who speaks, and . . . . we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory." [4]

Calvin was convinced that his victim had defamed religion (as no doubt was the Afghan judge). Yet every advance in religious understanding begins with someone who speaks the truth as his or her conscience dictates it, no matter who may disagree. Belief depends on the right to doubt, to dissent, to discover. To combat the defamation of religions is, then, in the end, to combat religion.

Would this Council return Geneva to the era of heresy and blasphemy? Or will it work to guarantee to Pervez Kambaksh and to all people, the freedom of expression enjoyed here today? We urge member states to return focus to the protection of persons and to abandon the dangerous notion of the defamation of religions. Thank you, sir. [5]


1. Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, on combating defamation of religions (Mr Doudou Diène), U.N. Doc. A/HRC/9/12, para. 45, 65.

2. Report of the Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, on elimination of all forms of religious intolerance (Ms Asma Jahangir), U.N. Doc. A/62/280, para. 76.

3. "Blasphemy case shows Afghan divide," BBC News (9 September 2008) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7605395.stm.

4. Jean Calvin, Defensio orthodoxai fidei. Quoted in John Marshall,
John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture: Religious Intolerance and Arguments for Religious Toleration in Early Modern and 'early Enlightenment' Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 325.

5. For additional discussion, see Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations, and Is There a Clash of Civilizations? The Failure of the United Nations Response, at

1 comment:

Kate said...

Lovely, Austin. Well put.