Recent news reports of tensions raised by the display of religious symbols have reignited debate on freedom of religion or belief.
Freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 18) and reaffirmed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 18) signed by over 160 States. In addition to freedom of religion, this right includes the right to adopt, change or abandon a religion or belief, or to profess no religion or belief.
Within the United Nations, France and the European Union defend and promote the principles of "freedom of religion and belief" and of "freedom of opinion and expression", two intrinsically linked and mutually reinforcing principles founded in the universal, indivisible and interrelated nature of all human rights.
Two resolutions are presented annually to the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly, one by the European Union and the other by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), both of which are adopted by consensus.
At the international level, France advocates the universal scope of freedom of religion or belief and of freedom of opinion and expression, upholding the view that the purpose of human rights is to protect individuals and not doctrines of thought such as religions and their symbols, which do not constitute subjects of law.
France therefore opposes any reference in the text of resolutions to the concept of "respect for religions" that would establish religions as subjects of law and thereby legitimise the criminalisation of "defamation of religions". This would open the door to censorship in matters of religion and dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression, exercised particularly against religious minorities, human rights defenders and journalists.
Under both French and international law, the concept of blasphemy is not recognised; the law only prohibits the advocacy of religious, racial, ethnic or national hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (France’s Law of 1 July 1972). Furthermore, the Law of 13 July 1990, (known as the Gayssot Law) established the principle of "suppression of all acts of racism, anti-Semitism or xenophobia" and amended the law on press freedom accordingly.
At the European level, a text reflecting the values of secularism (laïcisme) was adopted in November 2009 following the conclusions of the EU Council on freedom of religion and belief. The text asserts the need to provide adequate and effective guarantees of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, citing in particular the right to criticise religions.
Updated on : 01.03.13