U.N. Secretary General Argues That “Provok[ing] or Humiliat[ing] … Others’ Values and Beliefs” “Cannot Be Protected’ by the Freedom of Expression

From a Sept. 19 press conference by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:

Q: On this issue of violence erupting after the controversial film, can you please speak to the argument of freedom of expression that has been raised too? There is obviously the agenda issue here at the United Nations of defamation of religion, and there is a lot of dispute over that. Maybe weigh in on this in terms of your perspective on how to move forward in some concrete ways, where you can have a balance of freedom of expression, yet at the same time obviously respect various religions. And also perhaps touch on issues of some Member States of this Organization that don’t even allow certain religions to even open up houses of worship within their country because the level of intolerance is so extreme. Can you please address that, as well?

SG: All human beings have the inalienable right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. These are very fundamental rights. But, at the same time, this freedom of expression should not be abused by individuals. Freedom of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose. When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way. So, my position is that freedom of expression, while it is a fundamental right and privilege, should not be abused by such people, by such a disgraceful and shameful act.

This view on the part of the Secretary-General is not surprising; many governments and world leaders do indeed support banning supposed blasphemy, “defamation of religions,” and similar provocative or humiliating speech. But it’s still worth noting, I think, especially when we decide whether to legitimize U.N. action related to such matters.