Addressing the Human Rights Council, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk noted that the tome was the “core of faith” for well over one billion Muslims.
Those who had burned the Quran most likely did so “to express contempt and inflame anger”, Mr. Türk said, as he warned that these acts also aimed “to drive wedges between people”, to provoke and transform differences into hatred.
Dialogue to repair differences of opinion and faiths is key, the UN rights chief continued, as he condemned hate speech against and by people of all mainstream and minority faiths, highlighting instead the benefits of diversity to all societies.
The right to believe – or not to believe – “is fundamental to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, the High Commissioner told the Human Rights Council, which met on Tuesday for the urgent debate at the request of Pakistan.
He said leading politicians and senior religious figures have a “particularly crucial role to play” in speaking out clearly against disrespect and intolerance.
“They should also make it clear that violence cannot be justified by prior provocation, whether real or perceived,” he added.
Limits to free speech
The High Commissioner stressed that limiting free speech or expression to any degree must remain “as a matter of fundamental principle” an exception, especially given that laws limiting speech are “often misused” by authoritarian governments.
But, some acts of speech constitute incitement to violence and discriminatory action, he continued.
Numerous acts of violence, terror, and mass atrocity have targeted people based on their religious beliefs, including inside places of worship.
Although international law is clear on the issue, national courts must determine each case in a manner “that is consistent with the guardrails that international humanitarian law provides”, he said.
Power of the law against hate
“My second point is this: advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to violence, discrimination, and hostility should be prohibited in every State,” Mr. Türk told delegates at the Council in Geneva.
He gave the examples of abusing Muslim women who wear a headscarf, sneering at people with disabilities, smearing LGBTIQ+ people, or making false claims against migrants and minorities, noting that “all such hate speech is similar”, stemming from the idea that some are less deserving than others.
The tide of hate speech is being powered by social media and increasing discord and polarization, he warned.
Next, he called for rising hate speech to be addressed through dialogue, education, greater awareness, and interfaith or community engagement.
He highlighted the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, as a key support tool for governments to counter it.
He urged countries to redouble their efforts to implement the Plan.
Defy the chaos merchants
Faced with the increasing weaponization of religious differences for political advantage, he said societies must not take the bait.
“We must not allow ourselves to be reeled in and become instrumentalized by these merchants of chaos for political gain – these provocateurs who deliberately seek out ways to divide us.”
He said his overriding goal in addressing the debate was to stress the “profound enrichment” provided by diversity, existential views, “and our thoughts and beliefs”.
The UN rights chief said all societies need to become “magnets of respect, dialogue, and cooperation among different peoples, as has been achieved by multiple civilizations in the past.”