Good morning, distinguished colleagues and guests. On behalf of the United States, I am honored to join you at the Eighth Meeting of the Istanbul Process. Thank you to our hosts, Ambassador Hashmi and the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the United Nations and Other International Organizations, for organizing today’s events reflecting upon past and future implementation of United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18. My name is Uzra Zeya, and I am the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the U.S. Department of State.
Resolution 16/18’s adoption by consensus in 2011 continues to be a significant achievement in protecting and advancing two interrelated human rights – the right to freedom of religion or belief and the right to freedom of expression. In the past, some perceived these two rights to be in conflict. 16/18 made clear that they are, in fact, complementary.
Unfortunately, far too many people around the world remain vulnerable to abuses, harassment, and discrimination on account of their religious beliefs or affiliations. There remain far too many who continue to engage in hateful and discriminatory discourse, including increasingly through social media. But we remain firmly convinced that the only effective approaches to these ills are to further invest in strengthening education systems to promote mutual respect and tolerance, and to ensure the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and promote accountability for acts of violence and incitement against persons based on religion or belief.
Efforts to ban or criminalize speech deemed offensive are not effective means of addressing the underlying concerns, and they run directly afoul of our international obligations to freedom of expression. No matter how disagreeable someone’s speech might be, silencing it often serves as a catalyst for further antagonism. This is why the United States firmly opposes blasphemy laws and other laws that purport to criminalize “insult to religion.” The best way to deal with offensive speech is to drown out voices of hate with positive speech.
We are pleased to see Resolution 16/18 and its companion texts pass by consensus each year within United Nations fora, and since its passage, the United States has supported local, regional, and international implementation efforts in furtherance of the resolution around the globe. The Biden-Harris Administration has recommitted the United States to a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality; the principles of Resolution 16/18 remain an important element of achieving that vision.
At the heart of today’s Istanbul Process discussion is a shared commitment to tolerance and inclusivity, and the want to turn words into action. The actions laid out within Resolution 16/18 encourages leaders in government and civil society to speak out against religious intolerance, to form collaborative networks, and to engage with members of religious communities.
Before I continue, I want to acknowledge that the internationally accepted endeavors laid out by this resolution are not easily accomplished. We must seek to implement the resolution’s initiatives in country-specific and culturally sensitive ways. The United States, like all countries, has learned through an iterative process and with societal feedback methods to maintain a society which strives to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms for all people. We wish to share this experience to all willing nations in support of the resolution’s praiseworthy goals.
We call attention to our bilateral engagements between U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security experts and foreign government counterparts to discuss the U.S. domestic experience in combatting intolerance. These discussions focus on an exchange of best practices and include participation by in-country civil society, whose role is critical to ensuring the effectiveness of localized discussions on concepts of pluralism and mutual respect. The United States’ offer to governments is simple — we will provide expert level exchanges with your government utilizing the same civil rights experts that advise members of the Los Angeles and New York City Police Departments, at no cost to you.
Resolution 16/18 and the relevant discussions contained within the Istanbul Process will remain a necessary and vital tool for addressing future real world harms.
As I conclude, I want to emphasize the U.S. perspective that we defend our beliefs best by promoting free expression for everyone, and this includes supporting the promotion of credible, alternative narratives—that is, productive speech—as the primary means by which we advance freedom of religion or belief for all.