As the UN General Assembly begins its new session, a colossal gulf is again visible - a gulf between what international human rights law and UN resolutions say, and what some member nations do. A concrete effort must be made by the international community to close this gulf.
One glaring example is how some countries treat people who dare to express dissenting views about religion. A number of nations uphold and enforce laws that punish their own citizens for religious dissent or what they view as deviance from sacred norms. Under such laws and practices, dissidents may find their views labeled as blasphemous, defamatory, or insulting to religious symbols, figures, or feelings. If they are tried and convicted, some face draconian punishments, including execution.
The 2013 Annual Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom highlights the most outrageous example: In Pakistan at least 17 individuals remain on death row on blasphemy convictions, while 20 more are serving life sentences. At the same time, violent religious extremists have taken the law into their own hands, murdering individual Pakistanis accused of blasphemy.
In Pakistan's most heavily publicized case, Asia Bibi, a Christian farm worker and mother of five, was sentenced to death in November 2012, allegedly for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. She remains in jail and on death row.
An Egyptian law bans "contempt" or "defamation" of religions. Since President Hosni Mubarak's departure, there has been a spike in such cases affecting Muslims and disproportionately Coptic Christians. For example, Ayman Yousef Mansour, a Christian, and Alber Saber, an atheist activist, both received three-year prison sentences in 2011 and 2012, respectively, for insulting Islam, God, or the Prophet Muhammad. Mr. Saber fled the country; Mr. Mansour is still in prison. Earlier this year, Bassem Youssef, a comedian and satirist, was charged with "insulting Islam" on his popular television program.
Saudi Arabia uses blasphemy charges to suppress discussion and debate and silence dissidents against the government's own interpretation of Sunni Islam. In July, Saudi Arabia sentenced Raif Badawi, the editor of the Free Saudi Liberals website, to 600 lashes and seven years of incarceration for blasphemy and other charges. And since February 2012, authorities have detained Hamza Kashgari, a blogger who faces possible blasphemy charges. When commissioners from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom visited the kingdom this year, officials dubiously claimed that they are holding him for …