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Blasphemy a UN-guaranteed human right, PHL group says

August 14, 2011 3:00pm
(Updated 10:14 p.m.) The Philippines is bound by a United Nations (UN) covenant “upholding blasphemy" as a human right, an advocacy group member said Sunday.

Garrick Bercero, a member of the group Filipino Freethinkers, pointed this out amid the furor caused by the Poleteismo artwork that allegedly offended Christianity.

In its General Comment (GC) No. 34 on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) “affirms the superiority of the right to free speech over the so-called right against blasphemy," said Bercero in a statement on the group’s website.

Article 19 of the ICCPR provides for the freedom of expression as a basic human right recognized by the law of nations. Comments of the UNHRC are considered as a source of international law under Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, being "teachings of the most highly qualified publicists."

“Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant," the UNHRC said in paragraph 48 of its comment.

On its website, Filipino Freethinkers described itself as an organization of atheists and “freethinkers" in the Philippines working for a secular Filipino society by promoting reason and science.

Requiring state parties to guarantee freedom of expression, the ICCPR “embraces even expression that may be regarded as deeply offensive," though subject to certain limitations, the group said.

Independently accessed by GMA News Online, GC No. 34 was adopted by the UNHRC during its 102nd session from July 11 to 29.

UN also passed resolutions vs defamation of religions

The latest stand of the United Nations on blasphemy is not without limits, considering previous resolutions have been passed not only by the 18 “eminent legal jurists" of the UN Committee Human Rights (UNCHR) but even by the General Assembly, which is the UN’s highest authoritative body.

The UN became alarmed at the intensification of the campaign of defamation of religions and the religious profiling of Muslim minorities, in the aftermath of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Several resolutions bearing the same title “Combating defamation of religions" were passed by the Committee’s precursor body, the Human Rights Commission (HRC), beginning 2001 until 2005. Eventually, the UN General Assembly itself passed a resolution with that title in 2005, with 101 states voting in favor, 53 voting against, and 20 abstaining. The Philippines voted in favor.

In March 2006, the HRC became the UNHRC. The UNHRC approved a resolution titled “Combating Defamation of Religions," and submitted it to the General Assembly that passed it after voting. The Philippines again voted for the resolution. (Continue reading here.)

The Philippines “is legally bound by international law to follow GC 34" as one of its signatories and ratifiers, said the Filipino Freethinkers.

“With General Comment No. 34, the Philippine government may be compelled to repeal all the repressive and retrograde blasphemy laws we have in our books that the clerico-fascists keep dusting off and pulling out whenever society dares to go against their medieval aspirations," Bercero said.

On Thursday, Catholic lawyers filed a complaint against officials of the Cultural Center of the Philippines for allegedly violating a pre-war law prohibiting exhibits that offend religion. Also named respondent was Mideo Cruz, the artist behind Poleteismo.

GMA News Online was still trying to reach the involved lawyers to comment on the Filipino Freethinkers’ statement as of posting time.

In a Facebook message to GMA News Online, Karen Flores, who resigned as head of CCP Visual Arts division over the Poleteismo furor, said UNHRC’s GC 34, as well as readings on freedom of expression as a constitutional guarantee, “affirms that the right to free speech could not be superseded by the right to claim blasphemy against other beliefs."

“Hopefully, this would help liberate minds against the threat to curtail the development of the arts and how we could be more educated about it with respect to the diversity of Philippine culture," said Flores, who also shared the Filipino Freethinkers post on her Facebook page.

She added that GC 34 is “related to everything, not just to the exhibit."

“This current issue has on one hand promoted debate and exchange of views on the rights and responsibilities of both secular and religious groups; yet on the other, it can push us to the brink of chaos, where the harming of artists, the destruction of art and the resignation of the CCP Board become justifiable and ‘understandable’ due to accusations of blasphemy and offense to religion," Flores explained.

Prohibited speech

While upholding the right to freedom of expression, the ICCPR, however, may restrict certain forms of speech that goes against the “respect of the rights or reputations of others" and “the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health and morals."

Entered into force in 1976, the ICCPR also prohibits “any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence."

“The right to free speech is not absolute, yes, but it is abridged only by the risk of actual harm. Offense does not constitute real harm, according to our current understanding of the word," Bercero explained.

“Certainly, there was no incitement of violence in Cruz’s piece against any person," the group member said, noting that Cruz and CCP board members have themselves received death threats. — KBK/LBG/MRT, GMA News
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