Statement by Ambassador Donahoe: Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion are Inseparable

Geneva, Switzerland

Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe addresses the U.N. Human Rights Council Special Session on Syria, August 22, 2011. State Dept. photo by Eric Bridiers.

Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, photo by Eric Bridiers.

Human Rights Council 21st Session – Item 8 General Debate


Madame President, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Sometimes it is useful to step back from our daily work and remember what the human rights we are charged to defend actually mean for societies in practice. The inseparable freedoms of expression and religion are important not for abstract reasons. When they are allowed to flourish, we see religious harmony, economic prosperity, societal innovation and progress, and citizens who feel their dignity is respected. When these freedoms are restricted, we see violence, poverty, stagnation, and feelings of frustration and even humiliation. These are not mere assertions but demonstrable facts.

A recent Pew research poll shows that social hostilities involving religion were lowest among countries where governments do not harass or intimidate religious groups, and national laws and policies protect religious freedom. This poll is available on our Mission website.

The poll results track with our own experience as a nation. The US had blasphemy laws we inherited from our colonial past and we had laws that prohibited criticism of high officials and of the institution of slavery. These laws did not bring harmony or prosperity to our society; they impeded our progress until we ceased to apply them.

Free expression is instrumental in allowing us to manifest our religious beliefs as we see fit, even when our beliefs may be disagreeable or offensive to others. It allows us to wear religious clothing in public places and to display religious symbols. Our religious dignity comes from how we conduct ourselves and how we profess our faiths, not from the approval of government or others.

This same freedom is instrumental in allowing us to press political views that may not be popular and thus could change the nature of our governance. It allows us to publish scientific findings that challenge established beliefs or challenge established economic models or entrenched interests.

Some of this expression may indeed offend others. Those who criticize a political leader or a social tradition or an economic model will offend those who believe in them. But the potential unlawful reaction of an offended listener should not get a veto over the right of the speaker to express his or her beliefs. This is not because we are insensitive to the feelings of the listener, but because we know from experience that the price of restricting expression is too high. We believe that offensive ideas will fall of their own weight when countered by other arguments in a vibrant marketplace of ideas.

The Human Rights Council found the right formula for combating discrimination and intolerance while upholding the freedoms of religion and expression in Resolution 16/18. By implementing the measures laid out in Resolution 16/18, we bring harmony, peace, prosperity and dignity to our citizens and our societies. We look forward to intensifying that effort in the months ahead.

Thank you.

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