The UN at 70: Will Freedom of Religion or Belief Continue to be Sidelined?

In October 2015, the United Nations – the most significant global human rights project serving seven billion people in 193 member states – turned seventy.

There is no doubt that the last 70 years have witnessed significant positive development with regards to the legal framework protecting freedom of religion or belief, however, when it comes to the actual realisation of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) across the world, the situation on the ground in many countries remains challenging.

FoRB in International Law

Although religious freedom does not have its own convention, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a core human rights treaty with 169 state parties and ratified by 169 states, as well as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provide strong, legal protection of FoRB These legal protections also cover those with non-religious beliefs. Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has reported a number of violations of freedom of religion or belief to the UN Human Rights Council and provided a wealth of interpretative information and normative analysis of FoRB.

In practice: the global realisation of FoRB

However, if you base the assessment of the success of the UN on the actual realisation of religious freedom across the world, the performance of the UN remains discouraging.  According to PEW Research Centre, about 5.5 billion people (77% of the world’s population) were living in countries with high or very high overall levels of restrictions on religion in 2013. CSW has reported a wide variety of FoRB violations from 26 countries including Eritrea, Sudan, Burma, China, Pakistan, Cuba, Iran and Egypt. Violations range from violence, killings, imprisonment and sexual violence to discrimination in employment or education and restrictions on the construction of places of worship. Given this background, it is obvious that the implementation of FoRB for all faiths and none remains on a rocky road.

FoRB at the UN

Freedom of religion or belief is yet to receive consistent attention within the UN system. This is indicated, for instance, by the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Rita Izsak, who has raised concerns about the limited attention given to religious minorities during the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a unique state-driven UN process involving a review of human rights record of all member states. The first cycle of the UPR saw a total of 35 000 recommendations given to all UN member states, however, freedom of religion of minorities was mentioned only a few times.

There is also a wider need to increase the understanding and awareness of the fundamental nature of FoRB. The members of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva – led by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) States – have produced several resolutions on combating defamation of religions – which seek to protect religions and beliefs from criticisms –rather than protecting the fundamental right of people to freedom of religion or belief. This clearly conflicts with the Article 18 of the ICCPR.

UN Mandates and Mechanisms strengthen FoRB

It is obvious that through the UN, we can achieve great things. The UN vaccination programmes save 3 million lives a year and maternal health programmes save the lives of 30 million women a year. Six UN organisations have been awarded the Nobel peace prize. As for the widespread violations of FoRB in a rapidly changing world, it remains crucial that the UN strengthens its focus on freedom of religion or belief and takes it seriously. Increased support of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief provides an important step forward. The treaty bodies and other Special Procedures can be more active in addressing FoRB more consistently. The Universal UPR process continues to face shortage of FoRB recommendations – and mainstreaming FoRB within the UPR is a game where all 193 UN member states have a role to play.

By Sini-Maria Heikkila, CSW’s Public Affairs Team Leader