“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
All elected Member States of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) have a special obligation to protect and promote human rights. While every State has a responsibility to uphold human rights, in theory and in practice, Member States on the Council are in a unique position; and to that end, it is important that they practice what they’re supposed to preach.
During the HRC elections, candidates submit voluntary pledges, committing to the promotion and protection of human rights, and once elected, to maintaining high standards towards the protection and promotion of human rights.
Often, a State’s campaign for election is not free from criticism. Indeed, current HRC Council Members include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China; countries which are frequently pulled up for serious human rights violations.
“While every state has a responsibility to uphold human rights, in theory and in practice, Member States on the Council are in a unique position; and to that end, it is important that they practice what they’re supposed to preach.”
In 2017, Nepal was elected as a Member of the HRC. The country will serve for a period of three years, and could serve up to two consecutive terms. It is important that Nepal embraces its position on the Council, calls out human rights abuses, makes recommendations, and promotes peace and reconciliation and supports the work of Special Procedures among other human rights mechanisms.
However, Nepal must also address the concerns pertaining to its own commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) if it is going to be seen as a serious member of the Council.
June 2018 marks five years since the European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs Council adopted Guidelines on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). This anniversary provides an opportune moment to reflect on how the Guidelines are being used and whether they are fulfilling their intended function.
It is encouraging that FoRB has risen so significantly on the EU’s foreign policy agenda since 2013, but there remains substantial room for improvement. In particular, to ensure better implementation of the guidelines emphasis needs to be placed on increasing EU efforts to train officials on FoRB and on monitoring violations in countries worldwide.
Diplomacy works well until it doesn’t
The EU FoRB Guidelines were the result of a complex drafting process involving broad consultation with civil society specialising in this field of human rights including CSW and negotiated compromises between EU member states. They commit the EU to mainstreaming FoRB in its external human rights policy and identify practical steps EU institutions and member states should take to prevent and address FoRB violations in a “timely, consistent and coherent manner.” The text strongly affirms that the EU is “determined” to promote FoRB as a core part of the indivisible human rights landscape and free from alignment with any particular religious or non-religious agenda.
Welcome to the United Nations. It’s your world.
Until recently, when you accessed the United Nations (UN) website, these words would appear. They’re still used on some webpages, and the sentiment behind them still stands.
The UN is often the subject of criticism, and its flaws are well-documented, yet it remains one of the most important arenas for raising human rights concerns, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.
Three times a year, in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Human Rights Council comes together and UN staff, member state delegations and non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) all rub shoulders in meetings, formal sessions and – frequently – impromptu chats over coffee and in canteen queues.
On the agenda are some of the most serious human rights situations in the world.
This is also an opportunity for NGOs like Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) to organise side events running parallel to discussions at the Council, where victims of human rights violations, as well as experts and activists, can present their cases in an open forum. In March 2018, CSW hosted one of its first side events at the UN Human Rights Council since obtaining ECOSOC Consultative Status: an opportunity to discuss some of the most severe and complex challenges to religious communities in China.
Next week the United Nations’ (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) is holding a high level dialogue to assess the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR). The last time the HRC considered the situation of CAR was in September 2017, when President Faustin-Archange Touadéra made an unexpected appearance, and addressed member states, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights mandate holders.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) was present during this address and noted the positive engagement CAR maintains with the UN’s human rights mechanisms, including by granting access to the Independent Expert on CAR, Ms. Marie-Therese Keita Bocoum.
End of transition was not the end of the security crisis
During his speech, President Touadéra noted that the end of the transitional government and the return to democracy did not bring an end to the security crisis in CAR. Since November 2016, armed groups that were once part of the Seleka Alliance have clashed in the north and eastern regions. This violence has been characterised by the targeting of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure leading to mass displacement.
A child’s right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is guaranteed under international law. Yet children and young people in several countries across the world experience discrimination because of their religion or belief, including in educational settings.
For example, Christian children in northern Nigeria are often obliged to adopt Muslim names in order to access education. Hindu children in Pakistan face psychological and physical abuse from classmates and teachers. Rohingya Muslim children in Burma witness their schools being knocked down. Baha’i children in Iran are regularly abused physically and verbally by teachers.
“I was beaten with sticks approximately twice a week throughout nursery and prep. After that the manner of the abuse changed. As well as physical punishment, I was mentally abused and tortured by consistently being told to convert.”
Gurinder Singh, Sikh, Pakistan, 17 years old
The right to education, like the right to FoRB, ‘is crucial to the realization of a wide array of other human rights.’ Education can facilitate social mobility, or entrench disadvantage. It can assist in creating a culture of tolerance, or contribute towards fuelling stereotyping, intolerance and extremism.
With this in mind, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has produced a new report entitled Faith and a Future: Discrimination on the Basis of Religion or Belief in Education. Through verified case studies and in depth research in five countries spanning five geographical regions, this report seeks to stimulate vital conversations, encouraging further research and necessary action to address religious discrimination in educational settings.
Over the past decades, both Peru and Colombia have experienced internal conflicts which involved extreme levels of violence in many regions and high loss of life. While the conflicts were political (pitting far left groups against the government and/or far right paramilitary groups) they directly impacted ordinary civilians and civil society, including churches.
In many cases, Christians, especially church leaders, were targeted for different reasons by the various armed actors. This directly affected freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in those areas.
In both countries, the larger Church (composed of many different denominations) found itself looking for ways to respond to the conflict and especially how to support the churches, Christians and others living in conflict zones.
A decade ago, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) published one of the first comprehensive reports on North Korea’s human rights disaster, with the conclusion that it amounts to crimes against humanity.
North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act was also one of the first reports to call on the United Nations to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Initially, we were almost alone in making this call – a voice crying in the wilderness, dismissed by some for pursuing an action that, it was predicted, would never happen. We were banging our heads against a brick wall, some said. We took the view that if enough of us bang our heads for long enough, we might dislodge some bricks.
Four years later, other human rights organisations were making the same call, and we founded the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, together with over forty other organisations from around the world, to campaign for a UN inquiry. In early 2013 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added her support to this call, and a few months later the UN Human Rights Council established an inquiry. What some said could never be done was happening.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s first official visit to China, which begins today, is billed as an opportunity to boost trade with an important ally. But it will also take place against the backdrop of the country’s violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.
In the last month, Christians have been detained, and unregistered churches shut down or destroyed ahead of the implementation of revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, which strengthen state control over religious activities in China.
Unregistered churches, sometimes called house churches, are independent churches which have not registered with the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement. The new regulations are due to come into force tomorrow, giving Mrs May a rare opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese government and publicly to reiterate the UK’s commitment to defending human rights.
Religious conversion was criminalised in India’s Jharkhand State on 11 September with the introduction of the so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ law, making Jharkhand the seventh State to introduce such legislations after Odhisa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Chhattisgarh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Gujarat (2003) and Himachal Pradesh (2006).
Section 3 of the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act 2017 declares “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion/ religious faith to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means, nor shall any person abet any such conversion.” The punishment includes a prison term of up to three years and/or a fine up to fifty thousand rupees (equivalent to about £580).
The international community marks Human Rights Day on 10 December, the day on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948.
I have decided to use this occasion to shine a spotlight on Article 18 of the UDHR, which enshrines the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. In doing so, I am delighted to join forces with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which does excellent work to promote Freedom of Religion of Belief around the world.
Some have suggested that Freedom of Religion of Belief is a relatively neglected human right – indeed it has been called “the orphaned right”. Whether or not this has been true in the past, it is certainly not being neglected by the UK Government.
I cherish the right to freedom of religion or belief. I celebrate the fact that people of all faiths and none are free to follow their religion or belief in the UK. But I do not forget for one moment that many millions of others are denied this universal human right. Denial of this freedom does deep and lasting damage to many of our fellow global citizens, striking at the very heart of their way of life and often putting them and their families in danger.
Millions suffer discrimination and unspeakable levels of persecution due to their religious identity. Some members of religious minorities, such as the Baha’i in Iran, Yazidis in Iraq, Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan are attacked or arrested; others are regarded as second class, and unable to access key services such as education, health or justice. Denial of religious freedom exacerbates the suffering of innocent people in many of today’s crises and conflicts – including the Rohinga in Burma, Nigeria and the Middle East. It also hinders peace and reconciliation.
This government will not remain silent in the face of violations and abuses of human rights, including the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. We will work through diplomatic channels, bilaterally and in concert with our international partners, to press the case for freedom and tolerance. If we are to make a difference, I believe we must act together: government, civil society and faith leaders.
This brings me to the main message of this blog. Many actors have a role in ensuring that everyone enjoys the human rights set out in the UDHR. First among those are the states whose responsibility it is to defend those rights. Faith leaders too have great influence and it is particularly important that they speak up for tolerance. Religion often reaches parts of societies that government cannot. All the world’s major religions preach peace and tolerance. So on this Human Rights Day I pay tribute to those faith leaders who, true to their chosen faiths, promote the rights of others to practice their chosen faith or belief.
It can be a daunting challenge to defend Freedom of Religion or Belief in today’s increasingly hostile world. At times progress can appear a distant dream. But we must not falter. Too many have been denied this right for too long. Now is the time to stand united and to demand, once and for all, that the freedoms described in the UDHR should be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.