UN recognizes decline in International Religious Freedom, Deadlocked on Solutions

By Ann Buwalda

During the United Nations Human Rights Council which is in session this month, more than 40 countries addressed the interactive dialogue segment with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, expressing widespread support of his reports and activities as well as an extension of his mandate.  A number of countries referred to growing violence, indicating a trend and coming very close to consensus.  The United States acknowledged, “religious freedom is sliding backward.”  The European Union stated it “condemns recent attacks.”  Austria pointed out growing discrimination and rising attacks in various parts of the world against minorities; and Italy condemned extremist and radical groups resorting to violent purposes. When it came to finding solutions for this growing problem, consensus was notably absent.

Several countries in the Middle East decried rising discrimination and intolerance towards Muslims living in Western countries.  Bahrain pointed to the harassment against Muslim women which it said has caused “appalling consequences which offends the conscience of Muslim people.”  To counter this, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia highlighted their efforts in hosting conferences to encourage interfaith dialogues.  Several Muslim majority countries endorsed the Resolution known as “Resolution 16/18” which refers to the U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution initiated by the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) and passed in early 2011 on “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief.”  Many believe that Resolution 16/18 curtails the freedom of expression.  Pakistan, speaking for the OIC, stated that there will be a breakdown of consensus if countries back away from the plan of action set forth in Resolution 16/18, which the United States explicitly also endorsed.  Although Turkey was pleased that Resolution 16/18 was referenced by the Special Rapporteur, it expressed disappointment that the Special Rapporteur made no reference in his report to Islamaphobia.  Turkey stated that manifestations of Islamaphobia give rise to alienation of the Islamic community.  Bangladesh also blamed increased violence on the increase in defaming of religion which creates vulnerable situations.

Switzerland declared that states should rescind all criminal provisions of apostasy and blasphemy.  France also explicitly called for the abolishment of all criminalizing blasphemy laws.  Italy referred to extremist and radical groups resorting to violence, and endorsed the “Rabat plan of action” on prevention of genocide to establish an early warning system.  More information is given about this below.

The Special Rapporteur’s report (A/HRC/22/51, December 24, 2012) to the Human Rights Council focused on describing the legal framework for “the rights of persons belonging to religious minorities” to exercise their religious freedom of belief and this includes practice.  This use of “rights of persons” which Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt refers to is undergirded by prior international human rights instruments which call for the protection of the religious freedom right as an individual right.  He stated in the preamble to his report, “the rights of persons belonging to religious minorities cannot be confined to members of certain predefined groups.  Instead, they should be open to all persons who live de facto in the situation of a minority and are in need of special protection to facilitate a free and non-discriminatory development of their individual and communitarian identities.”  After outlining the conceptual framework to protect religious freedom of all persons, he describes patterns of typical violations by states and by non-state actors.

Prof. Bielefeldt explained that he chose this theme because anti-minority discrimination or persecution is all too prevalent around the world.  Numerous patterns of persecution were described and illustrated within his comprehensive report.  He called for the non-discrimination within state institutions such as “the accessibility of public positions in administration, public services, police forces, the military and public health to everyone regardless of their religious or belief orientations.”

Some countries disingenuously responded by pointing out how their Constitution and other laws do not discriminate, including China, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Kuwait; each of which referred to articles purporting equality in their constitutions.  Germany noted its federal government strives to support churches and religious communities and recognizes that every citizen has the right to freely profess or join or not to or to leave or change religion.  Cuba claims it maintains good relations with over 400 religious institutions.  Algeria, India, and Malaysia refer to the freedoms within their laws or ethos, thereby affording freedom and protection to minorities to manage their own affairs.  Sierra Leone detailed its extensive experience with religious tolerance within and between its Muslim and Christian religious communities, offering others to come and learn from its religious harmony.

In reality, Christians and other religious minorities, particularly in Egypt and in Pakistan, experience a hierarchy of rights, which are explicitly recognized in law and expounded upon in court cases, particularly those relating to the religion category on identification cards. The Special Rapporteur refers to this issue in Paragraph 70 of his report.  As an example of this derogation of rights, Egyptian officials and courts have consistently refused to change the religious notation of those who are initially categorized as Muslims. This has occurred both when an individual exercised his Article 18 right under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to change his faith as well as when the individual has always been Christian and was never a Muslim.  Without naming a particular country the Special Rapporeur noted the pattern of infringement of the right of religious minorities to educate their children in their chosen religion.  The effect in Egypt of preventing a convert who left Islam from changing his or her religion on the national identity card is that the children are required to take Islamic religion classes in school.  In addition, religious minorities such as the Bahai in Egypt are unable to reflect their true religious identity on the national ID cards at all; a predicament which Ahmadis in Pakistan face when applying for a passport.

The Special Rapportuer correctly identified the plight of migrant workers who are denied the legitimacy of their religious practice and persecuted for attempting to worship.  In her oral statement, Ann Buwalda of Jubilee Campaign stated that a “recent example of this is the arrest of 53 Ethiopian Christians in Saudi Arabia in February of 2013 for holding a meeting in a private home, many of whom remain detained. Another example is the dozens of Coptic Christians in Libya who were arrested in late February 2013. While some of them have been released, others remain in prison and some had acid poured on their wrists to remove the Coptic cross tattoo. While in both cases allegations of proselytization were made, both of these groups appear to be largely made up of migrant workers who were peacefully and quietly practicing their own faith.”  During the interactive dialogue, Costa Rica explicitly decried the “deporting of religious minorities” which may have been a reference to the above situations although no incident or country was directly named.

Resolution 16/18, which the OIC bloc repeatedly mentioned, was negotiated between Egypt and the United States in 2010 and was intended to end the virulent division over the Defamation of Religions Resolution, which advocated restricting speech in what amounted to a global blasphemy law. In a meeting with non-governmental organizations on March 7, the Special Rapporteur noted that Resolution 16/18 could be read within a framework of human rights, protecting human beings rather than ideas, and represented a move away from the defamation language. However, Professor Bielefeldt preferred to focus on the Rabat Plan of Action, which was produced by a process of the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights workshops on incitement. The first workshops actually predate Resolution 16/18 and Professor Bielefeldt was careful to stress that there was no direct relationship between the two documents.

Jubilee Campaign’s Side Event “Respecting Religious Freedom: Legally Safeguarding a Threatened Right” recognized that the greatest causes of violations of religious freedom are institutional injustices, laws which deny the full exercise of religious freedom. We echoed the calls of Switzerland and France for the abolition of blasphemy and apostasy laws, which are in open violation of human rights. Our event also focused on India’s anti-conversion laws and on Europe’s hate-speech and incitement laws, which seriously threaten religious freedom in those countries and are often overlooked at the Human Rights Council. In order to enjoy the full exercise of religious freedom, which is protected by Article 18 of the ICCPR these laws should be repealed.

Although consensus has not yet been reached on the process to reverse the serious deterioration of religious freedom and growing religious violence, the fact that most states agree that the violence requires a solution will hopefully lead to efforts to achieve a reduction in religious based violence.  The Special Rapporteur is committed to the Rabat Plan of Action, and the various countries endorsing this plan should quickly pursue a rapid response to the early warnings mechanisms of identifying dealing with potentially violent and tense situations.