The United Nations Human Rights Committee confirmed the central role of freedom of expression in human rights, making it clear that it can only be limited in the most exceptional circumstances, and calling for the first time for unrestricted public access to official information.
After two years of debate, the Committee has produced a General Comment that outlines the admissible restrictions on freedom of expression.
Although the General Comment does not discuss specific cases, the interpretations adopted Jul. 21 would apply to incidents involving freedom of expression, such as the violent protests triggered by the 2005 publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad by a newspaper in Denmark, or more recently, the wiretapping scandal involving Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch
Committee member Michael O’Flaherty said the strength of the General Comment is evidenced for example in the language that was adopted by the Committee around issues such as blasphemy and insult to religion, where the Committee made clear that limits on freedom of expression for these reasons can only be in the very exceptional situations laid out elsewhere in the ICCPR that deal with incitement to hatred and discrimination on religious or racial grounds and so forth.
Fabian Salvioli, another member of the Committee, said it did not linger on specific questions, like the Mohammad cartoons. That was not necessary, he said, because the paragraph on blasphemy is very clear. Statements and other forms of expression, even offensive ones, should not be penalised, unless they incite hatred, which is something different.
Article 19.3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) establishes that freedom of expression may be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals.
Article 20 of the ICCPR says: Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
Campaign group Article 19 Senior Legal Officer Sejal Parmar noted that Paragraph 50 of the General Comment states that prohibitions of displays (of) a lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the ICCPR except in specific circumstances envisaged in Article 20 of the Covenant.
The senior legal officer added that it would be impermissible for such laws to discriminate against one or certain religions or belief systems or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers or for such laws to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.