Provisions on offences related to religions
73. While noting that blasphemy charges have rarely been successful in court cases during the last decades, the Special Rapporteur is concerned at the continued existence of the blasphemy offence. The common law still imposes a strict liability on everybody who intends to make a statement on a Christian topic, even though he cannot know at that stage whether or not he will be found to have blasphemed. The Special Rapporteur shares the criticism that the blasphemy offence is discriminatory because it favours Christianity alone and lacks a mechanism to take account of the proper balance with freedom of expression. She also agrees with the Assembly of the Council of Europe which recommended in its resolution 1805 (2007) that the Committee of Ministers ensure that national law and practice in Council of Europe member States be “reviewed in order to decriminalize blasphemy as an insult to a religion”. The Special Rapporteur would like to reiterate that a useful alternative to blasphemy laws could be to fully implement the protection of individuals against advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence according to article 20, paragraph 2, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
74. In this regard and in view of the Government’s declarations made upon ratification of the ICCPR (see above paragraph 12), the Special Rapporteur welcomes that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 has recently entered into force in England and Wales. This closes the partial protection gap for people subjected to hatred because of their religion; they previously did not have the same protection under the criminal law as those targeted because of their race, especially since courts and tribunals have defined “race” so as to include Jews and Sikhs but no other religions. The Special Rapporteur notes with appreciation that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 also refers to non-religious believers in defining the meaning of “religious hatred” as “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief”. Furthermore, the Act tries to strike the delicate balance with freedom of expression by banning threatening words and behaviour rather than restricting discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult.
75. In order to allow a profounder analysis and to avoid misinformation about the application of the new provisions, the Special Rapporteur recommends that the Government should regularly publish statistics of prosecutions and convictions for incitement to religious or racial hatred. The Government also needs to monitor the situation closely in terms of the background of the victims and perpetrators. In addition, the Special Rapporteur encourages the introduction of similar legislation against racial and religious hatred in Scotland.