(CNSNews.com) – Governments have the “duty” to ensure that citizens do not face violence, discrimination and intimidation because of their religion or lack of religion, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday.
“There are those who, for reasons actually having little to do with religion, seek to instill fear or contempt for those of another creed,” she told an audience including officials from Islamic and other countries.
“So we believe that it is the duty of every government to ensure that individuals are not subject to violence, discrimination, or intimidation because of their faith or their lack of faith.”
Clinton was addressing the closing session of a three-day meeting in Washington on implementing a U.N. resolution “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief.”
Hosted by the State Department, the closed-door discussions brought together representatives from several dozen countries and international organizations including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the bloc of Muslim states that is the driving force behind the resolution, known as 16/18.
The measure was adopted by consensus by the U.N. Human Rights Council last March, and last month by a U.N. General Assembly committee, ahead of its expected adoption by the full General Assembly this month.
From the point of view of its Western backers, the resolution was a historic breakthrough since it invokes both freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Previous resolutions promoted by the OIC had sought to criminalize criticism – or “defamation” – of religion, and each year they sparked acrimonious debates and divisive votes.
But many critics believe the OIC, which claims “Islamophobia” is on the rise and has prioritized the “religious defamation” issue for more than a decade, has simply found another way to get Western governments onboard.
“The OIC has hit on a winning strategy to get Western countries to break away from their commitment to free speech by repackaging blasphemy as hate speech and free speech as the manifestation of ‘intolerance,’” George Washington University professor of public interest law Jonathan Turley warned in a column this week.
“Although the OIC and the Obama administration claim fealty to free speech, the very premise of the meeting reveals a desire to limit it,” he argued.
In her address Wednesday, Clinton referred briefly to criticism of the talks.
“Now I know that some in my country and elsewhere have criticized this meeting and our work with all of you. But I want to make clear that I am proud of this work, and I am proud to be working with every one of you.”
She praised the consensus adoption of resolution 16/18, which she said had “ended 10 years of divisive debate where people were not listening to each other anymore.”
“In it, we pledge to protect the freedom of religion for all while also protecting freedom of expression,” Clinton said. “And we enshrined our commitment to tolerance and inclusivity by agreeing to certain concrete steps to combat violence and discrimination based on religion or belief.”
Among those steps, states are called – in the resolution’s wording – to make “a strong effort to counter religious profiling, which is understood to be the invidious use of religion as a criterion in conducting questionings, searches and other law enforcement investigative procedures.”
States are expected “to take effective measures to ensure that public functionaries in the conduct of their public duties do not discriminate against an individual on the basis of religion or belief.”
Countries are also called to adopt “measures to criminalize the incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.”
In case involving stereotyping, stigmatization and denigration – but short of “incitement to imminent violence” – the text focuses on the need for “effective measures” including education, interfaith dialogue and “training of government officials.”
Clinton stressed the importance of freedom of speech in the United States.
“It is hurtful when bigotry pollutes the public sphere, but the state does not silence ideas, no matter how disagreeable they might be, because we believe that in the end, the best way to treat offensive speech is by people either ignoring it or combating it with good arguments and good speech that overwhelms it,” she said.
“So we do speak out and condemn hateful speech – in fact, we think it is our duty to do so – but we don’t ban it or criminalize it. And over the centuries, what we have found is that the rough edges get rubbed off, and people are free to believe and speak, even though they may hold diametrically opposing views.”
Clinton took pains to assure her listeners that no country or religion has all the answers.
“Now, the fact is that no matter how strongly each of us believes, none of us has the benefit of knowing all the truth that God holds in his hands,” she said. “And therefore, we are doing the best we can here on earth to reflect and to give honor to our Creator in a way that is manifest in our religious values. Because truly, at the root of every major religion, is a connection with the divinity, is an acceptance, and is a recognition that we all are walking a path together.”
Stressing that the values being affirmed in the talks were not solely American, but universal values, she added, “No country individually has a monopoly on the truth, and we will do better when we live in peace with each other, when we live with respect and humility, and listen to each other.”
Clinton also challenged governments – without identifying them or their religious affiliation – to hold accountable perpetrators of sectarian clashes, religion-related killings and vandalism of religious sites.
“It’s a situation which is troubling to us, because a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with a high number of restrictions on religious freedom.”
As CNSNews.com reported at the time, Muslim-majority countries scored worst in the Pew study, both in terms of government restrictions on religion and social hostilities relating to religion.
“We can think others are wrong, but we don’t feel so insecure and so fearful of their wrong views that we try to suppress them, imprison them, or even kill them,” Clinton said. “Instead, we trust that over time, if they are wrong, they will come to see the error of their ways. But we continue the conversation as fellow human beings and as people of faith.”