Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) – in full

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”Article 18, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

CSW is a Christian organisation working for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice.

Mexico: Protestants Cut Off From Basic Services

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Chiapas, Oaxaca and Hidalgo are all home to some of the largest and most varied indigenous populations in Mexico. Unfortunately, this diversity sometimes provokes division, and the three states have some of the highest numbers of documented violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the country, with the number of documented cases highest in Chiapas.

In Mexico, state and federal governments have a designated office to deal with religious affairs, a responsibility to address violations of religious freedom and to actively mediate a solution to religious conflicts. However, the officials are almost always distinctly under-resourced and lack training in human rights – especially religious freedom.

At best, state and municipal governments are unable or unwilling to protect the religious freedom of their citizens and to address these human rights violations. At worst, they are passively or actively complicit in the violations. A particularly concerning way FoRB is violated in these states is through the cutting off of basic services, like water and electricity, to Protestant families by the local authorities – as is often the case, the violation of one right leads to others

One of the most striking aspects of the cases Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has profiled in its latest report is the lack of official intervention to resolve them – apart from a few exceptions, for most of the people affected, little has changed.

Chiapas

In May 2016, the local authorities of Barrio de San José, in the Teopisca municipality of Chiapas, decided to cut off the water of 15 Protestant families. As of Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s (CSW’s) most recent visit to the village in March 2017, these families remain without water. Additionally, earlier in 2016, five families were targeted in the same way, this was because authorities wanted to force them to cooperate with a local Roman Catholic Festival. A further 80 Protestant families in the community were threatened with having their basic services cut off or being fined if they did not cooperate.

 “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights” – Article 1.1, General Comment No. 15 on the Right to Water

Violations such as these are widespread in Chiapas. On 11 February 2014, village authorities cut off the water to 25 Protestant families in Unión Juárez in the La Trinitaria Municipality. This case was not resolved until April 2016 when the government paid an illegal fine to the community authorities to re-establish the services to the families in question. The fact that the state paid this fine despite it being illegal is concerning as it may set a precedent which could be used to justify future discrimination motivated by financial gains.

In August 2014, 42 Protestants from Cuahutémoc Cardenas in the Palenque Municipality had their water cut off, a situation which had not changed as of CSW’s visit to the community in March 2017. In November 2016, 12 families in El Encanto in the Las Margaritas Municipality experienced the same, again this remains unresolved.

This has also been observed in Bolantón in the Comitán Municipality, where José Gabriel García García has remained without access to water since his conversion to Protestantism in 2016. Mr García García’s mother has also had her access to water cut off, and the electricity supply to her house was stopped on 15th May 2016. Four other Protestant families from Bolantón also had their water supply cut off, and it was only restored when they paid a fine of 5,000 pesos (approximately $250 or £200).

Oaxaca and Hidalgo

In the state of Oaxaca, Lauro Núñez Pérez from La Chachalaca in the Santiago Camotlán Municipality has been arrested on numerous occasions since July 2015 due to his conversion to Protestantism. When Mr Núñez Pérez visited his mother in March 2016, he found that her water and electricity services had been cut off, and her doors and windows had been broken. His mother had fallen ill at the time. Also in Oaxaca, Protestants in the community of San Juan Ozolotepec, who have experience extreme violence and acts of persecution over the last five years, told Reverend Alonso Silva that their water services had been cut off in early March 2017. Reverend Silva was forcibly displaced from the community in 2013 after he was illegally imprisoned and tortured for days and threatened with lynching by the municipal mayor who remains in office.

Protestants in the Tacuatitla community in the state of Hidalgo were threatened with having their water supply cut off in April 2016. Although this has not yet happened, the families have been removed from the community list, effectively making stripping them of their rights as citizens, and excluded from other activities. Their situation could deteriorate if the government does not address the situation swiftly.

This practice of denying access to basic services for people on the basis of their religion is one of the many ways FoRB is violated in many Mexican states. It should be acknowledged that this is not an issue in every state – Mexico is not lacking in good laws concerning freedom of religion or belief, but enforcement is low and levels of impunity are high. It is essential that those responsible for upholding these laws do not absent themselves from the issue.

“Mexico is not lacking in good laws concerning freedom of religion or belief, but enforcement is low and levels of impunity are high. It is essential that those responsible for upholding these laws do not absent themselves from the issue.”

It is impossible to justify the government’s failure to address and resolve serious violations of religious freedom targeting religious minorities, considering that they have occurred on a widespread basis in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Hidalgo since the 1970s.

In November 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 on the right to water. Article 1.1 states that “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights”. By cutting off the water supply to Protestant families, the local authorities of Chiapas, Hidalgo and Oaxaca are denying these families their human rights, a practice which must be stopped immediately.

Click here to read CSW’s “Mexico: Assignment Report”, March 2017

By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Assistant 

“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”: the Future of Abyei

It has now been six and a half years since the people of Abyei should have decided their future.

Abyei, an oil-rich region situated between Sudan and South Sudan, was due to have a self-determination referendum on the 9 January 2011; the day South Sudan decided to become an independent nation. However, disagreements between Sudan and South Sudan regarding voter eligibility has meant that the people of Abyei are still waiting to hold an official vote.

These disagreements centre on whether the nomadic Arab Misseriya tribe who spend a portion of the year in Abyei are eligible to vote. Despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) stating that only the Ngok Dinka tribe, and those permanently residing in Abyei for a period of 3 years, may vote, the government of Sudan failed to accept these terms.

As the delay continued, the Ngok Dinka General Conference conducted what was termed a “People’s Referendum”: it was an unofficial vote but 98% of registered Ngok Dinka voters participated, of which 99.9% voted to join South Sudan. Sudan and South Sudan, as well as the African Union and international community, rejected the outcome of the referendum but both Khartoum and Juba have laid claim to Abyei.

Since the Peoples Referendum, South Sudan has descended into chaos, while Bashir’s grip on Sudan appears to be strengthening. With chaos to the South and oppression to the North, the decision may not be as simple as it was a few years ago – Abyei and its people are clearly trapped between a rock and a hard place.

The Rock – Bashir’s Agenda

Al Bashir, one of the only acting heads of state to be indicted by the ICC, is well known for running an authoritarian regime, with human rights continually being abused. Al Bashir has no desire to lose Abyei to South Sudan; he made that clear in 2015 when he claimed Abyei was a Sudanese territory and would remain so. Bashir and his allies have turned Sudan into what feels like an impenetrable rock.

“Al Bashir has no desire to lose Abyei to South Sudan; he made that clear in 2015 when he claimed Abyei was a Sudanese territory and would remain so.”

Being part of South Kordofan would be highly undesirable for the people of Abyei. In a recent film, titled “the Heart of Nuba”, there is damning evidence of the government bombing its own civilians in the Nuba Mountains, a region in South Kordofan. Ngok Dinka links to the SPLA during the civil war would make them targets of the government of Khartoum.

The actions and rhetoric of the Sudanese government suggests that even if the vote resulted in Abyei joining the South, they might not allow it to secede peacefully.

This poses two important questions:

  1. Does South Sudan have the ability to defend Abyei?
  2. Does the international community have the political will to protect Abyei?

With internal violence engulfing the state, it is unlikely that the government of South Sudan will be able to protect Abyei while trying to bring its own situation under control.

With South Sudan not being in a position to protect Abyei, the second question about – whether the international community has the political will to protect Abyei – is significant.

The EU is working with Sudan and surrounding African nations to reduce the number of refugees reaching Europe via Libya. Sudan is central to the policy which casts doubt over the political will to intervening to protect Abyei from the government of Sudan. Opinion in Washington on how to deal with Sudan appears to be changing. President Obama’s decision to partially lift US sanctions on Sudan in January 2017 was a surprise to many and signalled a significant shift in the relationship between Khartoum and Washington. However, President Trump’s executive order banning Sudanese nationals from traveling to the US suggests otherwise. The Trump administration sees Sudan as a threat and an ally in the fight against terrorism, yet “putting America first” cancels out any chance of a military intervention to protect Abyei. Trumps foreign policy focus in the region is countering ISIS and Islamic terrorism, outside of that intervention appears to be out of the question. Putting America first means putting Abyei last.

Therefore, it is likely that the African Union (AU) would have to resolve the situation. This would allow the AU to showcase African solutions for African problems, but could also run into issues of political will amongst member states. It is difficult to fathom circumstances where a positive case would be made for AU intervention in Abyei outside of the current UN peacekeeping mission. Intervention would destabilise the already fragile region. The AU would also lose its role as an independent broker of peace in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile which could usher the return of war between rebel groups and the government.

 The Hard Place – South Sudan’s Civil War

Clearly if the vote had been officially conducted in 2011, with all the hope and optimism surrounding the chance to create a new independent nation, Abyei would be part of South Sudan. Yet the dynamics of the decision have changed.

Three years on from the unofficial “People’s Referendum”, South Sudan is descending into chaos. The UN recently warned of a potential genocide similar to the one experienced by Rwanda. South Sudan’s civil war is being waged along ethnic lines between the Dinka and the Nuer. Violence is orchestrated by President Kiir, a Dinka, and his former vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer. The Ngok Dinka are the majority in Abyei, a group with connections to the Dinka in South Sudan and therefore a vote to join the South could put them at risk of being embroiled in the ethnic conflict. Both government and rebel fighters have been known to deliberately target civilians based on ethnicity.

South Sudan is experiencing problems in functioning as a state due to the ongoing violence. Famine is a major problem, as well as inflation.

It appears that the fighting in South Sudan is set to continue, unless both sides make an effort to reconcile. For Abyei this is distressing, as joining South Sudan would mean becoming part of another civil war.

 The future  

Much has changed in the six and a half years since Abyei was due to hold its referendum. Despite the violence to the South, it is hard to imagine that a future result would be different to the People’s Referendum of 2013, due to the experience Abyei has had and could potentially have with the north. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement which brought an end to the longest running civil war in Africa and the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration set out clearly the terms and participants of a plebiscite in Abyei. The political will to hold an official referendum based on these conditions must be found so that the people of Abyei can exercise their hard-won battle for self-determination.

By Ben Jackson, CSW’s Advocacy Assistant

No Ifs, No Buts: Torture Should Be Universally Condemned

“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured gruelling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…” 

Wang Qiaoling describing the torture of her husband, lawyer Li Heping

 

“Even our breaths were suppressed. No voices. No texts. No images. No talking. No walking. Our hands, feet, our posture…every body movement was strictly limited. We needed permission for even the most trivial action”.

 Lawyer Zhao Wei, the youngest legal assistant detained in the 709 Crackdown

 

“Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.” 

Letter to world leaders by ‘709’ Family Members

These are just a few accounts of the torture experienced by human rights lawyers in China. Over 300 lawyers, activists, colleagues and family members were detained, interrogated or disappeared in a sweeping crackdown beginning on 9 July 2015, dubbed the 709 Crackdown. Two years on, most have been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, but with news of their release have come numerous testimonies of physical and psychological torture including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation.

Use of torture in China

Lawyers and activists are by no means the only victims of torture. Many of the lawyers caught up in the crackdown had defended clients who had been tortured by police or security agents, including those arrested in connection with their religion or belief such as Falun Gong practitioners and Christians associated with unregistered churches, as well as those accused of crimes not related to politics or religion.

Li Heping reunion

Human rights lawyer, Li Heping (right) pictured with his brother Li Chunfu (left) following his release from detention.

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UK General Election: an opportunity to reiterate a commitment to human rights

Coming less than a year after the EU referendum, the UK’s snap General Election on Thursday will provide a fresh opportunity to ensure human rights are at the heart of government policies.

Amid competing priorities, it remains important that the new government pledges to uphold the UK’s commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in all aspects of foreign policy, including diplomacy, international aid and trade.

Freedom of Religion or Belief matters

According to the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the state of international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. Its new report states:

“the blatant assaults have become so frightening—attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated.”

Against this backdrop, it’s increasingly important that the government shows its commitment to protecting this right. It must speak with boldness in challenging FoRB violations and allocate adequate resources, in addition to using its diplomatic and political capital, to address them.

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Eritrea Protest Vigil 2017

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Three years ago, I found myself at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), playing a game with an eight year old girl – I would say the name of an animal and she would draw it.  She was an Eritrean refugee and had come to the HRC with her parents as part of a delegation who were there to give testimony at a side event. Her entire family had been detained by the government, locked up with others in a shipping container. She shared memories of the entire place smelling awful, of being freezing cold at night and roasting hot during the day and of how she and her other siblings joked about which family member was covered with the most lice. A serious issue was turned into a game as their parents did  their best to shield their children from the full force of the horrors they were experiencing.

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What Difference Does a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief Make?

As Ján Figel starts his second year as the EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the European Union, the last 12 months of his time in this new mandate show the respect for this role that has developed amongst sceptics and the potential for his role going forward.

In under 12 months Mr Figel has raised the profile of FoRB as a human rights priority for the EU, highlighting the important role religion and belief, including the right not to believe, plays in the daily experience of millions across the globe.

Early on in his first term the Special Envoy said “FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” At the end of his first year, there has been a visible widening of EU engagement on this sensitive human right, as part of its dialogue and development policies.

“FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” – Ján Figel, EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief

Sudan is one of several countries with poor human rights records which Mr Figel has visited in his first year. Such visits open up opportunities for a senior EU diplomat to engage with religious leaders and religious communities to address societal hostilities, in addition to working with government officials.

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Li Heping’s Release – A Moment to Celebrate or a Continuing Case of Concern?

Li Heping’s reunion with his family on 9 May 2017 was a moment for celebration; the celebration of an innocent man’s reunion with his long-suffering family and the celebration of the end of a period of torture, interrogation and imprisonment. But the joy of Li Heping’s reunion with his family is tempered by continuing concerns for his safety, and the injustice of his situation.

Who is Li Heping?

Li Heping is one of China’s most experienced and high profile human rights lawyers. He began working on sensitive cases around 2002 and is well known for defending the human rights of religious minorities, including Christians and Falun Gong practitioners, as well as activists and victims of torture.

His work on these cases led to a confrontation with the state. A Chinese security agent reportedly once told him that, in the eyes of Beijing, Li had become “more dangerous than Bin Laden”. In September 2007, Li was abducted, stripped and tortured by security forces. He then had his lawyers’ license revoked in 2009, and continued to be consistently monitored.

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Dignitaries Sign Letter Supporting Appeal For CSW’s UN Accreditation

Member States of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

Re: CSW’s application for UN ECOSOC Consultative Status

 

Excellencies,

We are writing to you requesting that you vote in favour of Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s (CSW’s) appeal for UN ECOSOC consultative status in April 2017.

CSW is a human rights advocacy organisation with almost 40 years’ experience of promoting the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in over 20 countries worldwide. Its advocacy work is firmly rooted in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

CSW engages regularly with United Nations mechanisms providing evidence-based analysis. It applied in 2009 for consultative status in order to broaden the scope of its work with key human rights advocacy platforms, including the Human Rights Council and General Assembly.

On 3 February 2017, the UN Committee on NGOs voted to reject CSW’s application after repeated deferrals. Since 2009, CSW has provided timely and comprehensive answers to over 80 questions from the Committee, to no avail.

We, the undersigned, are disappointed at the Committee’s decision and deeply concerned about the wider message that the rejection of CSW’s application sends regarding the Committee’s commitment to facilitating NGO access to UN mechanisms.

CSW’s situation is not unique. In May 2016, over 230 NGOs raised concerns about the Committee’s repeated deferral and denial of NGO applications for consultative status, which effectively blocks a number of NGOs from participating fully in UN processes.

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From Deferral to Denial: CSW Continues to be Blocked from the UN by the NGO Committee

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“Without the participation of non-governmental organisations and civil society groups, no initiative, however visionary, can be fully achieved” – Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon

Civil society participation at the United Nations (UN) is not an ‘add-on’. Rather, inclusive and genuine NGO engagement increases accountability and strengthens the work of the UN, making it more effective and better-informed. This has been flagged numerous times by many of the key human rights experts within the UN.

The importance of the contribution of civil society actors to the capacity, efficiency and impact of the UN Special Procedures and other human rights mechanisms was stressed in the latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, meanwhile, has pointed out the significant obligation international human rights law places on Member States to respect the freedoms which enable civil society to develop and operate.

Given the role civil society has to play in the protection and promotion of human rights, the recent decision by the UN NGO Committee to deny Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s access to the UN – after arbitrary deferral of its application since 2009 – sends a controversial and troubling message to civil society. Far from being just an administrative hurdle or minor oversight, the decision is effectively an attempt to silence the voice of an NGO promoting FoRB– thus undermining the protection of FoRB within the UN system.

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Latent Justice: The Unfinished Gujarat Story

“The Gujarat Carnage 2002, is certainly one of the bloodiest chapters of post-independent India. The painful reality is, that those responsible for it, are now at the helm of power in India” – Father Cedric Prakash (Human Rights Activist)

Confronting past crimes is unsettling, particularly when the perpetrators continue to enjoy political immunity. Fifteen years ago on 28 February 2002, violence in Gujarat, India covered the news headlines as an estimated 2,000 Muslims were massacred over several months across 16 districts in the country.

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