22nd June 2005
Lord Lester�s rhapsody against the new proposals to outlaw incitement to religious hatred (�A steamroller to crack a nut�, The Guardian, 21 June 2005) ought strongly to be challenged on a number of grounds.
First, his reading of the current race hate law is utterly wrong: the law does not treat Jews and Muslims equally as regards incitement to racial hatred � that is the conclusion of the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences after 18 months of evidence gathering and deliberations; that is the understanding of every relevant law enforcement agency on this matter; and that is why the BNP can incite hatred towards Muslims with impunity but not against Jews.
Second, his fears that the proposed legislation would unnecessarily and unacceptably infringe free speech is simply misplaced. The UK already has such legislation in Northern Ireland and the impact of the proposed legislation has already been trialled for some faith communities (Jews and Sikhs) in Britain for more than 20 years. There is no evidence at all that the operation of the existing legislation has in any way improperly infringed free speech.
Third, his main argument that this is a steamroller to crack a nut is not shared by any of the main authorities on human rights. In fact, the UN Human Rights Committee, the European Commission against Racism & Intolerance, and the Office of the European Commissioner on Human Rights have all observed the inadequacies of the current incitement to racial hatred provisions and have specifically called upon the UK to extend these provisions to incitement to religious hatred � a call twice repeated by the Council of Europe, the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights, only this month in two separate reports.
Fourth, his consistency, or lack of it, on this issue is remarkable. Lord Lester was, of course, once a strong advocate of this type of equality legislation � particularly, one presumes, in view of the protection it might provide to vulnerable minorities. He is, of course, a member of the Jewish community himself. Having admirably won protection for himself and his community, one would have hoped that he would also have supported this protection being extended to members of other faith groups too.
The Liberal-Democrats had originally opposed this proposal in November 2001 on the grounds that it was tied at the time to anti-terror measures. Their opposition now is quite shameless.
The Muslim Council of Britain
London E15 1NT