Addressing the scope of proposed legislation against hate speech, members of the International Religious Liberty Association's Board of Experts drafted a statement deeming defamation of religions laws unnecessary last week during the group's 11th annual meeting.
Existing international human rights law is a sufficient means of protecting faith groups against hate speech that may result in discrimination or violence, members agreed during September 1 to 3 talks at the Seventh-day Adventist world church headquarters and locations in Washington, D.C.
The statement comes as international bodies such as the United Nations advocate specific laws targeting hate speech in an effort to preempt crimes fueled by religious hatred.
While experts agreed with the motivation behind such laws, they said enforcement could backfire, infringing upon individual freedoms of expression, which include the right to criticize religious beliefs and practices.
"While there are laws that already guarantee religious liberty, if I'm offended, I can appeal to this other law that overrides the first," said Robert Seiple, former United States ambassador for International Religious Freedom, hypothesizing on the moral conundrum he and other panel members say defamation of religions laws can create.
"Good laws and great lawyers don't guarantee good behavior," he added.
The statement reiterates conclusions board members made when they first met to discuss the then-emerging issue of defamation of religions last fall in Bucharest, Romania. Without a universally accepted definition of defamation of religions, experts worried that laws seeking to eliminate hate speech might be enforced arbitrarily and unequally.
While panel members such as Rosa Maria Martinez de Codes, a professor at Spain's Universidad Complutense in Madrid, agreed that there must be a "margin of respect" for differing beliefs, the panel concluded that dialogue and education, rather than legislation, can best cultivate such an attitude.
Among several suggestions, the statement proposes that government, educational and religious leaders encourage "understanding, tolerance, respect and friendship" among members of various faith communities.
"We must elevate our thinking beyond the common denominator of basic tolerance to true understanding," Seiple said.
The statement also calls for human rights advocates to "closely monitor" the enforcement of defamation of religions laws already passed to guard against any "counterproductive consequences."
Members hope that in addition to human rights experts and the United Nations, the statement will reach members of the non-governmental agency community and heads of state.