Beyond the Paris Attacks and Rally: What should happen next?

By David Kaye

It takes a certain amount of audacity for people to go into the streets after the attacks we saw this week on the Charlie Hebdo staff, Jewish shoppers before the Sabbath, and the police. I’m awed by the hundreds of thousands who participated in today’s rally in Paris in support of . . . well, in support of any number of legitimate and important things. Freedom of expression, I would hope, is that the top of the list: freedom to express all kinds of views, political, religious, artistic, and otherwise.

The coming weeks will almost certainly see a kind of forceful effort to tighten counter-terrorism cooperation internationally and close domestic bureaucratic and legal gaps that allowed the terrorists in France to kill their victims. (That also allows the security officials to say, ‘if only we had this power, we could have stopped the attacks,’ which is nonsense.) Anyway, the point I want to make is this: responses to the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks should focus on attacks on free expression as much as they focus on improving counter-terrorism approaches.

This is off-hand, quick and informal, but here are three steps – by no means exhaustive – that governments could take to translate last week’s awful attacks and the energy of today’s Paris march into something meaningful, certainly for the kinds of people targeted:

  1. Repeal blasphemy laws. Around the world, governments criminalize blasphemy and insult to religion; just this week Saudi Arabia flogged a blogger and activist for perceived insult to Islam, and the Saudis are not alone. It is possible and correct to recognize the deep offense that religious people feel when their religion is denigrated or ridiculed, and it is just as important to ensure that expression does not serve as incitement to discrimination or violence. Governments can do a lot to encourage interfaith dialogue, understanding, and so forth. However, as the Human Rights Committee of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) recognized in General Comment 34, blasphemy laws are “incompatible” with Article 19 of the Covenant. Let’s also be honest: First, blasphemy laws, particularly those that lead to arrest and detention of “blasphemers,” signal a government’s support for targeting a person for her opinion or expression. And second, blasphemy laws are regularly used as instruments to limit religious expression or dissent, not simply to criminalize those attacking a particular religion. Overall, they send the wrong message and breed resentment more than they protect the sensibilities of believers.
  1. Organize for free expression. In the wake of the Paris attacks, France enjoys a kind of moral authority to exercise leadership in the space of free expression. This is a critical moment to reiterate the core principles at the heart of Article 19 of the ICCPR and Universal Declaration. In 2006 the Security Council adopted a resolution on the protection of journalists. Council members could consider revisiting that approach, adopting a resolution in support of free expression, one that emphasizes the freedom and protection of journalists, artists, academics, religious communities, women, and so forth. Of course, not all members on the Council are friends to free expression. But merely tabling such an effort could go some distance in highlighting what needs to happen to improve the climate for freedom of expression worldwide.
  1. Support and improve the UN’s human rights mechanisms. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is, in many respects, at the front lines of support for those exercising their rights to expression, opinion, religious belief, peaceful assembly, and so forth. Special rapporteurs and human rights working groups engage directly with governments to encourage them to release defenders, journalists, artists and others, and to repeal laws that attack free expression. We work with civil society, individual activists and others defending fundamental rights. And yet, as the current High Commissioner put it last year, “the Office does not even receive sufficient regular-budget funding to pursue its mandated activities.” Now this may sound prosaic and like special pleading, but governments should step up their financial support of special procedures. I have seen what special procedures can accomplish over the past half-year, and they deserve broader and deeper governmental support. France and other governments represented at the rally in Paris could take the lead on improving the financial foundation of the central international mechanisms for human rights.

This would be a start, at least.

About David Kaye

Clinical professor of law at UC Irvine School of Law. UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. Writing mainly about freedom of expression but also international justice and human rights more generally.
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