As antiquated as it may sound, 84 countries currently have laws criminalizing blasphemy. The international community has long recognized the problematic nature of these laws; the ‘End Blasphemy Laws campaign,’ launched in the wake of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre, was the last major push in the movement to have them repealed; however, it was highly unsuccessful. In fact, countries that have pledged to promote and safeguard human rights have quietly passed new or amended blasphemy laws in the years since, and they continue to be enforced with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment and death. With recent news of Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro’s draft amendment to broaden Poland’s blasphemy laws, the subject has been thrust into the spotlight once again. 

What are Blasphemy Laws?

Many governments consider blasphemy, “the act of expressing contempt or a lack of reverence for God or sacred things,” to be a serious and legitimate offense. As a result, they  maintain laws that prohibit “offending, insulting, or denigrating religious doctrines, deities and symbols” or “wounding or insulting religious feelings.” In theory, these criminal blasphemy laws “promote intergroup religious harmony” and serve to support state religion by solely targeting “blasphemous” expressions. But in practice, criminal blasphemy laws are broad and overly harsh, they stifle free expression over religious dialogue, and they discriminate against religious minorities. Such laws are wholly inconsistent with several international human rights principles. 

Broad and Overly Harsh

Legality and proportionality are two distinct but related principles under international human rights law. The principle of legality is enshrined within numerous human rights charters and is primarily concerned with clarity of the law, whereas proportionality is a “criterion of fairness and justice” put forth by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which strives for balance between “the punishment imposed by a corrective measure and the severity of the prohibited act.” Together, these principles comprise fundamental tenets of international law that demand precision in drafting laws and guide their application.

In the criminal context, the principle of legality requires that crimes be classified in “precise and unambiguous language that narrowly defines the punishable offense.” However, many criminal blasphemy statutes are broad and do not outline or explain their prohibitions with enough specificity to satisfy this standard. For example, Sudan’s criminal code prohibits “insulting religious creeds,” and Indonesia’s penal code criminalizes acts that have “the character of being at enmity with, abusing or staining a religion.” But, ‘insults,’ ‘abuses’ and ‘stains’ are vague and imprecise terms that fail to inform individuals of what acts incur liability and leave the law open to wide interpretation as to which acts and expressions amount to blasphemy.

The penalties imposed by these broad laws are equally inconsistent with international standards as they hardly ever fit the gravity of the alleged crimes. The principle of proportionality, which requires that any means of enforcement be “suitable or appropriate” and “no more restrictive than necessary,” also specifies that states must reserve the death penalty for only the most serious crimes; however, the punishments imposed by blasphemy statutes are overly harsh. Hefty prison sentences are often imposed for trivial offenses like playing Pokémon Go in a church or putting rainbow flags on public monuments. And, in Pakistan and Iran, the two countries with the highest overall state enforcement rates of blasphemy laws, people have been sentenced to death for acts as inconsequential as sending memes of holy prophets and questioning religious teachings in private messaging forums

Stifles free expression

Freedom of expression is another principle of international human rights law implicated by blasphemy laws. The right to free expression is protected by core international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). While both the UDHR and ICCPR provide that everyone has the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas,” they also allow states to restrict these freedoms in certain circumstances, such as to combat “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Consequently, many blasphemy statutes include absolute bans on inciting hatred or violence. 

Such bans do not, in and of themselves, violate the right to free expression. However, by their very nature, laws against blasphemy and religious slander always go beyond prohibiting incitement to hatred or violence. For example, Iran’s blasphemy statute and accompanying press law which prohibit insulting the Prophet of Islam, criticizing the Islamic regime, and publishing content that is contrary to Islamic principles, leave no room for conversation. Such law, which resembles that of many other countries, conflates questioning, criticism, ridicule, and satire – forms of discourse within the realm of freedom of opinion and expression – with blasphemy. This, in practice, stifles free expression over religious dialogue.  

Discriminates against religious minorities

Unlike freedom of expression, the freedom of religion is absolute and cannot be limited under the international human rights framework. As articulated in Article 18 of the ICCPR, freedom of religion is an indelible right that includes the freedoms of thought and conscience and the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief. As a result, international human rights law prohibits states from favoring one religion over another or discriminating against religions or beliefs. Specifically, Articles 26 and 27 of the ICCPR guarantee individuals the rights to equality and non-discrimination in regard to religion and prohibit states from denying religious minorities their “right in community” to “profess and practice” their religion. 

Many blasphemy statutes and their accompanying laws appear to be consistent with these principles as they often grant formal recognition and extend legal protections to other religions and religious groups. These statutes nevertheless infringe on the freedom of religion as they implicitly discriminate against religious minorities. For example, while Italy’s blasphemy statute criminalizes blasphemous acts committed against other religions recognized by the state, it only institutes prison sentences for such acts if directed towards Catholicism, the official state religion. This conveys a clear preference for one religion and creates an undeniable religious hierarchy within the state. 

Similarly, Egypt’s constitution declares Islam as its official state religion but professedly strives for “integration and unity” by acknowledging “Christian and Jewish religious affairs.” But, this law disregards other religions and denominations; Hindus, Protestants, and Buddhists, for instance, are ostracized and excluded from legal protections under such law


Legality and proportionality, freedom of expression, and religious equality and non-discrimination are fundamental principles of international human rights law. They are guaranteed in numerous international instruments and together imply that people may lawfully hold a wide range of ideas and beliefs and communicate them publicly, even if others may consider them blasphemous. Blasphemy laws deviate from these principles as they are often broad and their penalties overly harsh, they act as a de facto censure of religious dialogue and criticism, and they afford different levels of protection to different religious groups. Such laws are inconsistent with universal human rights standards.

Author Biography: Gabriella Igboko is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a B. S. in Business Administration with a minor in Economics from Fordham University.