Explanation of Vote by John F. Sammis, United States Deputy Representative to ECOSOC, in the Third Committee of the Sixty-fourth Session of the United Nations General Assembly, on L.27 - Combating Defamation of Religions

John F. Sammis
United States Deputy Representative to ECOSOC 
U.S. Mission to the United Nations 
New York, NY
November 12, 2009


Mr. Chairman,

The United States has long had concerns with the concept of defamation of religions, but we have tried, over the course of the last year in Geneva and New York, to articulate an alternative vision to address what we view as the root concerns behind this resolution.  We believe that the increasingly splintered views on this resolution, both here and in Geneva, suggest that while a majority of member states may recognize that the underlying issues are extremely important, those issues are not adequately addressed in this resolution, and require careful consideration.  We were pleased that we had the opportunity at the last Human Rights Council session, working in collaboration with our colleagues from Egypt and over 50 co-sponsors from all regions, to come to consensus on another divisive and connected issue, freedom of expression.  We regret the early vote on the resolution this year, and more importantly, regret that there has not been an opportunity to address this problem in a spirit of consensus.

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences,” our President noted in June, “we will promote conflict rather than cooperation, and continue to sow the cycle of suspicion and discord.”

United States concerns with the concept of the “defamation of religions,” and with how it seeks and has resulted in unacceptable restrictions on freedom of religion, and freedom of thought and conscience, are well known.   But I would like to emphasize a few points here:

- Freedom of religion is a foundation of civil society; it is a human right, a social good, a source of stability, and a key to international security.  The United States believes it is the duty of all governments to respect the ability of every individual to profess and practice his or her own faith, and we applaud the efforts of so many UN Member States that are actively doing so.  We recognize, and deeply respect, that religion is a global phenomenon, a key source of identity, and a powerful motivating and mobilizing force around the world.
- We have also seen first hand the discrimination and violence that can be exacerbated by ignorance, intolerance and fear of persons with different religious faiths.  We join the call of leaders from all parts of the world in saying that we believe it is incumbent upon governments to model respect and welcome diversity of religious belief. 
- We also believe that governments have the tools to address intolerance at their disposal, and that these include a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, proactive government outreach to minorities – including educating them on their means of redress, and the vigorous defense of freedom of expression and religion without discrimination.
- We have a good deal to learn from one another about how best to foster interreligious cooperation and dialogue.  There are hundreds of thousands, if not more, examples of diverse communities living in peace and partnership in all regions of the world, and we hope that the United Nations will help to give voice to these stories. 
- Freedom of expression and freedom of religion are rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  As many here have recognized in their own countries, we strongly believe that robust protections of speech and free and open dialogue are also an important part of the solution.  When held up to the bright light of public scrutiny, hateful ideas are shown for what they are – lacking merit, and based on fear and ignorance.  We believe that respectful and welcoming societies are built by the people on the basis of open dialogue and are informed by their experiences; they cannot be imposed by the government’s laws about who can say what when.
- We also believe that the United Nations must remain faithful to the central tenet of human rights law.  Rights are held by individuals, not by governments or other institutions, and not by religions.  We should embark on a conversation on how to build mutual respect and tolerance among the individuals who practice different religions, but in doing so should not lose sight of our overall goal to realize our dream of universal human rights for all individuals, including the rights to both freedom of expression and freedom of religion.  

The United States will vote against this resolution because we can not agree that prohibiting speech is the way to promote tolerance, and because we continue to see the “defamation of religions” concept used to justify censorship, criminalization, and in some cases violent assaults and deaths of political, racial, and religious minorities around the world.  Contrary to the intentions of most Member States, governments are likely to abuse the rights of individuals in the name of this resolution, and in the name of the United Nations.  We are deeply committed to addressing concerns of intolerance and discrimination and are eager to work with the cosponsors and the rest of this body to address the root concerns behind the resolution in the spirit of consensus.  Until then, however, we urge others to join us in voting no.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


PRN: 2009/268