Human Rights Language as a Double-Edged Sword: Examining the Clash on Freedom of Expression and Defamation of Religions in the UN System

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The global debate on the tensions between religious sensitivities and the right to freedom of expression has intensified over the last few years. From the Rushdie affair and the Danish cartoon affair to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and controversial legislation against blasphemy and hate speech, the debate on freedom of expression visà- vis religion has divided public opinion throughout the world.

This dispute has been particularly visible in the UN system, which adopted several resolutions condemning "defamation of religions” between 1999 and 2010. The sponsor of these resolutions has been the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an intergovernmental organization comprising 57 member states in the Muslim-majority world, and OIC’s explicit ambition has been to redefine international free speech norms and outlaw religious defamation, either by adopting new legal instruments or by broadening the meaning of existing provisions in international law. By framing religious defamation as a human rights violation, the OIC has argued that defamatory speech targeting religions is a manifestation of e.g. racism, hate speech as well as a global security threat.

On the other hand, OIC’s critics have argued that OIC’s leading member states are promoting and internationalizing authoritarian domestic censorship norms. On the basis of the norms literature in International Relations and inspired by normative theory, this project examines how the different actors in the UN system frame their arguments in different ways; how they compete to define and redefine the content of “universal human rights” and how liberal and secular human rights terminology is being used to legitimize rivalling political agendas. The thesis argues that human rights language is a double-edged sword which can be used to empower individuals and dissenting minorities, but it can also be used to bolster state authorities and cultural orthodoxy at the expense of dissenting individuals and deviating minorities.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherKing's College London, Department of War Studies
Number of pages355
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Freedom of Expression
  • Censorship
  • Blasphemy
  • United Nations
  • Organization of Islamic Cooperation
  • Hate Speech


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