09/28/2012 03:02 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Finding a Path Toward Global Free Speech

This week's salvo over free speech at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly has the potential to devolve into a polarized global debate pitting freedom of expression against the impulse to protect religions from insult and offense. Global leaders are rightly seized with addressing the explosive impact of insults to religion and the violent backlash they can unleash. But without great care, insight and leadership, the decision of world leaders to wade into this emotionally charged territory will deepen rather than bridge global divisions.

In his remarks at the U.N. earlier this week, President Obama set out the perspective embodied in the U.S. First Amendment and case law, namely that the right response to insults and denigration is not to prohibit the expression or punish the speaker, but to enable free rein for "the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect." He rejected efforts to ban even the most incendiary forms of expression on the basis that prohibitions on speech "can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities." His approach reflected the U.S.'s approach toward free speech, probably the most protective in the world, which permits prohibitions only in cases where expression is judged to constitute incitement to imminent violence.

He was met with equally robust calls from other leaders urging a global ban on so-called blasphemy. Egypt's new President, Mohammed Morsi, proposed that the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly consider measures to prevent religious insults along the lines of those in the anti-Muslim video that sparked last week's protests. "There are limits to the freedom of expression especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures," said Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Qatar's emir went a step further, urging the drafting of "laws, procedures, and controls to prevent insulting religious and faiths under any pretext."

This split has the potential to widen into a chasm that feeds rather than tempers the explosive popular reaction to offensive speech. An unhappy, yet not unlikely scenario is that Egypt, Qatar, Yemen and others press forward with introducing U.N. resolutions or proposed treaty texts that would impose international bans on blasphemy. The U.S., Western Europe, Canada, Australia and potentially some South American and African democracies will oppose these efforts vociferously. The result could be years of bitter impasse that only fuel global differences over thorny questions regarding the interplay of religion and human rights.

For U.N. insiders the battle is a familiar one; though now being waged at the level of heads of state. For most of the last ten years at both the U.N. General Assembly in New York and its Human Rights Council in Geneva, Pakistan led a group of Islamic delegations in tabling an annual resolution decrying the "Defamation of Religion" and calling for measures to prohibit and punish offensive speech. These resolutions were the subject of sharply divided votes twice a year, with considerable diplomatic energies expended in battling for or against them. It was the U.N. at its worst, with years of fruitless debates contributing nothing to achieving actual improvements on the ground for those confronting religious intolerance.

In March, 2011, Western delegations, the Organization of the Islamic conference and delegations from Africa, South America and Asia came together to finally overcome the drawn out battle,uniting behind a consensus alternative to the traditional Defamation resolution. The new resolution, introduced by Pakistan, focused on combatting religious intolerance through concrete measures including education, interfaith dialogue, forceful political leadership and aggressive action against hate crimes. Following passage of the resolution, global leaders met in Istanbul in the summer of 2011 to throw their weight behind its implementation and expert meetings were set up to share best practices.

Rather than returning to battle stations and reviving a tired debate that will end in deadlock, global leaders should redouble their commitment to this consensus approach to addressing the underlying concerns that Presidents Obama, Morsi and all their counterparts ought to share -- namely, ensuring respect for religious differences, preventing violence and ensuring respect for fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech.

The multi-year process of shifting the U.N. debate away from bans on defamation and toward practical steps to address intolerance yields lessons that can prevent world leaders from being drawn back into opposing camps. Efforts to address intolerance should center on the victims whose rights are at stake -- including the right to question and challenge state and religious authorities; the right to practice religion freely without feeling threatened or targeted and the right to be free from violence. Strategies to address religious intolerance need to uphold all human rights that are implicated, without privileging any one set over all others.

Such efforts depend on unified global leadership. The explosive events of recent weeks may have left little room for global leaders to consult ahead of their U.N. speeches, but the spectacle of heads of state so sharply divided over the issues does not help. When the debate over defamation of religion was overcome, it was because foreign ministers and heads of international organizations from all regions came together, acknowledged their differences and sought out common ground.

Finally, what broke the impasse over defamation was an emphasis not on trying to resolve thorny questions of when particular speech should be considered out of bounds, but rather a focus on concrete actions that states and others could take to promote respect for religious differences -- work that departments of justice, education, and foreign ministries could do to promote understanding and settle disputes before they explode. There are measures set out in the new resolution that have been proven to work in addressing intolerance that form the basis of a shared global agenda.

Global leaders now face the choice of reverting back to trench warfare over insults to religion, or moving together in unison behind an agenda to which they have all agreed. The approach they take could well determine whether the violent outbreaks of recent weeks become a thing of the past, or a pervasive part of our collective future.