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The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has called on Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy laws, and to promote tolerance through positive speech, anti-discrimination laws, and education.

Speaking at the 39th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, IHEU Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey, condemned the recent statements made by the newly elected Prime Minister, Imran Khan, supporting blasphemy laws at home and globally.

Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan

She pointed out that international law is clear that blasphemy laws should be abolished, and pointed out that “blasphemy laws protect ideas over people; they violate human rights and foster intolerance.”

Before being elected Khan vowed to defend Section 295-C (the blasphemy law) of the Pakistan Penal Code, saying that he fully supported the law. The law pertains to use of derogatory remarks in respect of Prophet Mohamed and states that they “shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

Whilst condemning the blasphemous cartoon competition in the Netherlands, during his maiden address to the Senate last month, Prime Minister Khan blamed the recurrence of such incidents a “collective failure of the Muslim world”, saying he would take up the matter at the United Nations General Assembly’s upcoming session.

He said, “The OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) should have taken up the matter long ago and forged a practicable strategy. But the OIC is yet to wake up to the detestable moves (perpetrated) to hurt the sentiments of the Muslims”.

Commenting on his remarks, O’Casey said:

“In fact, the OIC did take up the issue “long ago” – in 2008, when it introduced its UN resolution on religious defamation. It took a great deal of advocacy and diplomacy to finally rid the UN of these defamation resolutions. In 2011 they were replaced by resolution 16/18, which established a framework for addressing discrimination and violence through positive policy action, targeting the root causes of this phenomenon, including by opening space for dialogue and discussion. Ironically, resolution 16/18 was tabled by Pakistan on behalf of the OIC.

IHEU Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey

“Currently, we have a precious consensus on resolution 16/18 which provides a bridge between polarised views. It is therefore the height of irresponsibility for Prime Minister Khan to be calling for a return to these dark days; and shows not only a lack of understanding of the human rights framework as a whole but also of his own country’s role in establishing the current consensus.

“I’m not sure how serious he is – and it may be that it is merely talk, a deeply cynical attempt to appease the more conservative and extreme factions of his country. But obviously we will maintain our advocacy at the UN and, if this plan is mooted in a more serious manner, we will do whatever we can to ensure that it is countered.”

Pakistan is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council. There are an estimated 40 individuals sentenced either to death or to life imprisonment for blasphemy in Pakistan. Between 1986 and 2007, the authorities charged 647 people with blasphemy offences – 50% of these were non-Muslims who in total constitute around 3% of the population.

O’Casey’s statement follows in full below:

International Humanist and Ethical Union

UN Human Rights Council, 39th Session (10th – 28th September 2018)
General Debate on Item 4

Elizabeth O’Casey

“In Pakistan, it has become very easy to use religion for silencing people, especially human rights defenders. We have seen how, in the past, blasphemy has been used as a political tool.”

These are the words of Gulalai Ismail, board member of the IHEU and co-founder of Aware Girls. She has been accused of blasphemy and threatened due to her work to empower and educate women and girls; and for campaigning for justice for Mashal Khan. Mashal Khan, a humanist, was killed by a group of fellow students after blasphemy accusations in April 2017.

Blasphemy accusations in Pakistan are frequently devastating. The accused can become embroiled in years of trials while imprisoned and face a death sentence. There is also a serious risk of extrajudicial killing at the hands of radical Islamists or enraged mobs. Since 1990, vigilantes have been accused of murdering 65 people associated with blasphemy accusations.

Despite this, the recently elected Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has not only supported blasphemy laws at home – [specifically the law that carries a death sentence for the use of derogatory remarks about Muhammad] – but has voiced his desire to promote a global restriction on criticism of religion.

We remind Pakistan and Prime Minister Khan, that the UN Special Rapporteur on Free Expression, the Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide have all called for blasphemy laws to be repealed globally.

Blasphemy laws protect ideas over people; they violate human rights and foster intolerance.

We call on Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy laws and promote tolerance through positive speech, anti-discrimination laws, and education.

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