French Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Julie Lechanteux of the Identity and Democracy Group (ID) raised concerns about antiquated blasphemy laws, which are used by several countries, to persecute individuals and communities for their beliefs and activities when they do not conform to the majority religious opinion.
Many countries, especially those where Islam is the predominant religion, still actively apply laws against blasphemy. The death penalty is sometimes handed down as punishment. In its external policy, the European Union must therefore take into account that blasphemy laws in some countries violate human rights and democratic principles. Laws on blasphemy are often used as a form of censorship by certain states to prevent any critical discussion on religion. In a democratic society, it is crucial that critical discussions on religion can take place in a safe environment, and that freedom of religion or belief is a protected democratic value.
In January 2020, MEP Julie Lechanteux raised a parliamentary question to the European Commission regarding blasphemy laws. Given that the European Union is committed to supporting democracy and human rights in its external relations, as well as its competences in this regard, and in particular Articles 2, 3, 6, 21 and 25 of the Treaty on European Union and Article 205 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, MEP Lechanteux requested “to what extent does the Commission take into consideration the existence of blasphemy laws, their interpretation and how they are applied when cooperating with third countries?” Additionally, MEP Lechanteux asked “in the context of its external policy, does the Commission intend to impose sanctions on third countries that use these laws to oppress minorities?”
The Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, replied to MEP Lechanteux’s question on behalf of the European Commission stating that “blasphemy laws exist in 71 countries and their abuse may violate or undermine the right to freedom of expression”. She added that “this position is laid down in the ‘EU Guidelines on the promotion or protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief’ (FoRB) and in the ‘EU Guidelines on freedom of Expression Online and Offline’”. The Commissioner reported that “in line with these guidelines, the EU considers that blasphemy laws are often applied to mistreat persons belonging to minorities’ and that “the EU recommends the decriminalisation of such offences and forcefully advocates with third countries against the use of death penalty, physical punishment or deprivation of liberties as penalties for blasphemy”.
Commissioner Urpilainen highlighted that “support to Freedom of Religion or Belief is a priority in the EU external human rights policy” and “EU Delegations monitor human rights violations across the world including the abuse of blasphemy laws”. She declared that “human rights dialogues, demarches, public diplomacy and political dialogues are regularly used to raise concerns in the matter” and “the EU takes into account and plans its support based on these assessments’.
In closing, Commissioner Urpilainen claimed that the EU supports activities promoting this right through various instruments such as “the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights” that funded grants on Freedom of Religion or Belief for more than EUR 27 million in the 2007-19 period”.
Commissioner Urpilainen concluded that “the promotion of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights is at the core of the European Union’s work, as also reflected in the EU regulations relating to external financing instruments 2014-2020”.
Human rights experts and activists around the globe often argue for the laws which adequately distinguish between protection of individual’s freedoms and laws which restrict freedom of speech. Article 20 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) obliges countries who have ratified the Convention to adopt legislative measures against “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”. Such protections must be carefully circumscribed, and must not support the prohibition of blasphemy per se.
In light of Commissioner Urpilainen’s response, the European Union may need to reconsider its trading relationship with countries such as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan who continue to use blasphemy laws against christians and other minority communities in violation of the ICCPR.
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