Submission: Removal of the Offence of Blasphemy 2014

Humanist Association of Ireland
Affiliated to the International and Ethical Union
Member of European Humanist Federation

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Removal of Blasphemy Offence

1. Executive Summary
The Humanist Association of Ireland calls upon the members of the Constitutional Convention to vote in favour of removing the offence of blasphemy. Article 40.6.1.i currently states that “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
The Constitution is intended for all the citizens of the state. However, this Article actively discriminates against the non-religious who feel they cannot comfortably express their irreligiosity lest they cause offence and be punished under this provision. This impinges upon freedom of expression and belief of many of this nation‟s citizens. It is for these reasons that this submission recommends that the blasphemy offence be removed so that the Constitution can adequately safeguard the rights of all of its citizens.

2. The Humanist Association of Ireland
The Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) is an organisation that has as its aims the promotion of the ideals of Humanism and assuring the equality of rights and parity of esteem for those citizens of Ireland who do not subscribe to a religion. Humanism is a positive ethical philosophy of life based on concern for humanity in general and for individuals in particular. It is a view of life which combines reason with compassion. It is for those people who base their understanding of existence on the evidence of the natural word and its evolution, and not on belief in any supernatural power or agency. We note that based on the 2011 census over 269,000 respondents to the religion question answered, „No Religion‟. (An additional 73,000 did not respond to the question.) This is the largest category under Religion other than Roman Catholic. The HAI speaks for this largest minority in Ireland.

3. Additional information
Information of the HAI is available at its website www.humanism.ie. Readers are also invited to refer to the document offered therein entitled “Equality for the Non-Religious.”

4. Blasphemy laws impinge on the civil liberties of citizens
Blasphemy laws are inherently discriminatory as they aim to protect the beliefs of a select group among society at the expense of other people’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression. They also give greater precedence to religious beliefs over the beliefs of the non-religious. Blasphemy laws can even infringe upon a person’s freedom of religion as differing religious beliefs often considered other religious beliefs blasphemous. Therefore, the blasphemy law cannot be applied to ensure freedom of religion or if applied it is applied in a discriminatory manner where the beliefs of one religion are protected whereas others are silenced. In such situations preferential treatment often is shown towards the dominant religion. Blasphemy laws are often abused leading to arbitrary arrests and imprisonment. They are also used to silence dissenters, political opponents, and religious minorities. There are a plethora of examples of how blasphemy laws are abused worldwide, frequently infringing on human rights.

One such example is offered by the case of a Christian girl, Rimsha Masih 14, who was arrested on the charge of desecrating pages of the Qur‟an. Rimsha when found with pages of the Qur‟an in her bag. Despite her young age she was imprisoned for three weeks in a maximum security prison. Another Christian, Ryan Stanton 16, was arrested for forwarding a blasphemous text message. Alexander Aan, an atheist, was arrested in Indonesia for simply expressing on his personal Facebook his belief that god did not exist. Several bloggers in Bangladesh have been arrested for offending the religious sentiments of the Muslim majority.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has been promoting the adoption of international blasphemy laws since 1998. In 2012 the UN Secretary-General said limits should be put on speech when it is used to “provoke or humiliate”. Ireland‟s blasphemy law is oft cited as an example of a western nation which has recently legislated for blasphemy. By continuing to have a blasphemy law, Ireland is setting an example which other nations are using to legitimise their draconian laws. In fact, Pakistan frequently cites Ireland‟s law as their own law has come under increasing international scrutiny due to the human rights abuses conducted under its aegis.

5. International condemnation
The following are examples of the international condemnation of blasphemy laws.
a) Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Blasphemy laws are in direct conflict with this ideal.
b) Blasphemy laws are clearly in violation of Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights which prohibits against discrimination.
c) In 2009 the Venice Commission concluded that blasphemy laws should be abolished.
d) In 2011 the Human Rights Committee said “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, […] it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”

6. Previous recommendations for removal
a) In 1991 the Law Reform Commission recommended the removal of the offence of blasphemy stating that “there is no place for the offence of blasphemous libel in a society which respects freedom of br>
b) Similarly, the Irish Constitution Review Group recommended that the law be removed from the Constitution in 1996.
c) In 2008 the Joint Oireachtas Committee ruled “that in a modern Constitution, blasphemy is not a phenomenon against which there should be an express constitutional prohibition”.

7. Concluding remarks and recommendation
Blasphemy laws impinge on some of the most fundamental rights of individuals, such as freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Such laws are inherently discriminatory as they elevate the beliefs of religious people over the beliefs of minority religions and the non-religious.
The Humanist Association of Ireland calls upon the Constitutional Convention to remove the offence of blasphemy from Article 40.6.1.i of the Constitution. Its removal has been recommended by several international and domestic bodies all of whom agree that blasphemy laws have no place in a society that values human rights, civil liberties and freedom of expression.
Prepared by Peter Ferguson
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