With John D’Angelo. There is still a lot we don’t know about Wednesday’s attack on the satirical magazine at Charlie Hebdo, discussed in yesterday’s blog post. What we do know is this: besides killing twelve people, these terrorists have attacked fundamental human rights, specifically the right to freedom of speech, expression, and press. The attacks sparked waves of protest in support of the upholding and protecting of these fundamental freedoms. Prominent figures and newsmen everywhere have declared that terrorism will never stamp out the foundational freedoms of man. British PM David Cameron stated that “[the British] stand absolutely united with the French people against terrorism and against this threat to our values – free speech, the rule of law, democracy. It’s absolutely essential we defend those values today and every day.” What began as a horrible massacre of human lives has sparked a much greater debate about protecting human rights. A conversation, in our opinion, that is long overdue. The Western world has long talked of protecting lives and property from terrorism, and now we must also protect our values – freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression.
Freedom of speech is the political right to express one’s opinion freely and fully to anyone and at all times. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), one of the most important and most widely ratified international human rights treaties, states that “[e]veryone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Article 19 ICCPR goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals.”
Does this mean we should limit freedom of speech? The answer is a resounding no. Freedom of speech includes the right to controversial and opposing opinions, even if it means to occasionally offend someone, which in the case of Charlie Hebdo was specifically Muslims (among other religions as well as political opinions and figures). The magazine is actually a good example of standing up to trends in the Western world rolling back protections of free speech. Charlie Hebdo has been targeted before, but wasn’t deterred: it insisted on its rights to free speech and its editor, Stephane Charbonnier, famously said he would rather “die standing than live on my knees.” The public outrage at the shooting and the unity and support people have shown for freedom of speech and human rights is therefore encouraging in spite of fear mongering and anti-Islamic, anti-immigration responses of some.
Human rights are granted to all people, based on the very simple fact that we are human. We therefore all have a responsibility to defend them and stand up for them, regardless of who threatens them and for what reason. As former The Onion editor correctly points out, “you cannot kill an idea by murdering innocent people.” In a free society, the flow of ideas, thoughts, and expression cannot be stopped. The very meaning of freedom is ingrained in these ideas, expressing our values. It is worth standing up for these ideals.
We cannot and should not stop talking about our ideals and discussing our values, even if some disagree. As the Charlie Hebdo case shows, the fight against terror, intolerance, and xenophobia cannot be limited to political discussion and military means. It’s a fight that concerns all of us, we are all part of the struggle because we all carry these rights. We shouldn’t forfeit our freedoms and our liberty easily. Human rights are universal and indivisible, which means that freedom of speech is just as important as any other human right given to us. Whether you believe human rights to be from a God or from a secular social contract matters little. What is vital to understand is that until we unite against terrorism, extremism, and radicalism, and develop a proper channel to bring human rights violators such as terrorists to justice, they will continue to undermine the very idea of universal human rights. Singling out specific groups will only aid their goals and aims and violates another fundamental human rights principle: the right to non-discrimination. The events in Paris need to be handled with care; we must do everything in our power to prevent acts of discrimination against the Muslim community, work for tolerance and to protect our freedoms, and think carefully about our words and action. Otherwise, the terrorists win.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.