Exactly two years ago, on 22 February 2014, the United Nations (UN) finally shone a light on the darkest corner of the world, North Korea. Its year-long Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby, published a damning report concluding that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the horrific human rights violations in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and that the catalogue of abuses amounting to crimes against humanity should lead to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
International community calls for justice and concrete action
In January 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, said it is “now imperative to pursue criminal responsibility” of the North Korean leadership. “Not much has changed in the country almost two years after the report of the Commission of Inquiry,” he added.
The European Parliament also passed a resolution calling for an end to impunity and for those responsible for crimes against humanity to be brought before the ICC and be subject to targeted sanctions.
Casto Hernández Hernández (right) with his pastor
Casto Hernández Hernández and his cousin Juan Placido Hernández Hernández were first imprisoned and then forcibly displaced in March 2015 after they refused to renounce their Protestant beliefs. Despite the open admission by a village leader in early court hearings that he had attempted to force the men to change their religious beliefs, the case dragged on for almost eleven months, with the Public Ministry repeatedly cancelling or postponing hearings [See more].
Agreement on religious freedom allows the men to return home
On 2 February, the Public Ministry in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, reached a decision and put in place an agreement between Casto Hernández and Juan Placido Hernández and authorities from the village of Chichiltepec.
The agreement – drafted by the lawyers affiliated with CSW’s Mexican partner Impulso 18 and endorsed by the Public Ministry – guarantees total freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the village of Chichiltepec and Casto and Juan Placido’s right to return, with their full religious rights recognised.
According to the director of Impulso 18, Jorge Lee, the village authorities came to the meeting prepared to fight. When they realized they were ‘one step away from going to jail’, however, they changed their position, signed agreement and promised to uphold religious freedom in Chichiltepec.
While none of the village authorities spent any time in prison despite their criminal actions, we, and most importantly Casto and Juan Placido, feel that this agreed outcome is the right course of action.
It establishes their constitutional rights in a very clear way but also allows them to re-join their community in as harmoniously a way as possible. The concern was that if the authorities were thrown in prison, the levels of hostility would be so high, and the rupture in the indigenous community network so profound that it would be impossible for the two men to ever return home.
Three quarters of the world’s population lives in countries with severe restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) – in fact, it’s one of the most widely-violated human rights in the world.
This blog is all about FoRB; how to better understand the different aspects of this often-overlooked right, the situation in countries where this and other rights are violated – and the perpetrators and victims at the centre of it all.
Expert analysis by members of CSW’s advocacy team, who work in over 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, will put a spotlight on FoRB issues in the news and CSW’s research.
In October 2014, the Chinese Communist Party announced that rule of law would be a top priority for the country. However, just one year later, over 150 lawyers and 150 more colleagues, family members and other activists had been questioned, detained, or disappeared in a crackdown which began on 9 July 2015.
Journalists and legal experts have speculated about what ‘strengthening rule of law’ might mean for China’s ruling Party: whatever it means, it doesn’t seem to include rights lawyers.
CSW’s 2015 report on violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba detailed an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum.
Figures compiled by CSW, which are not exhaustive but which serve as an indicator of the level of FoRB violations, reveal a tenfold increase – with 2,300 separate violations recorded in 2015 compared to 220 in 2014.
Many incidents involved entire churches or, in the case of arrests, dozens of victims.
Commenting on the findings, CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “CSW doesn’t use the word ‘unprecedented’ lightly to refer to violations of freedom of religion or belief in Cuba in 2015. Following an upward trend in violations in recent years, 2015 witnessed a spike as the authorities deployed ever more public and brutal tactics to target churches across the denominational spectrum, regardless of their legal status.”
“It is clear that despite promises of reform, the government is determined to maintain a tight grip on civil society, including churches. We commend the courage of religious groups who have spoken out publicly to denounce these violations and to call for the right to freedom of religion or belief to be upheld. We urge the international community to stand with them and to hold Cuba to account for these human rights violations,” he added.
Below is a digital illustration highlighting the crackdown on churches in Cuba.
Click here to read CSW’s report in full.
Palace of Westminster, London
Since October 2015, the UK has hosted a state visit for the President of China and the first official UK visits of the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of India.
While it is the responsibility of any government to foster good bilateral relationships, this should include full and frank discussions about human rights. The Conservative party committed to this in its 2015 manifesto where it stated:
“Our long-term security and prosperity depend on a stable international system that upholds our values… We will stand up for the freedom of people of all religions – and non-religious people – to practise their beliefs in peace and safety, for example by supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East… and we will continue to support universal human rights.” 2015 Conservative Party Manifesto
During these visits, CSW made calls for the Prime Minister and his Government to honour their manifesto commitment and to raise the religious freedom situation in all three countries as part of bilateral talks. The Government was disappointingly quiet on human rights during all three visits, prompting many to question whether trade was being prioritised above human rights.
Following the Conservative party’s election win in 2015, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) took the opportunity to ‘re-configure’ their work in order to ensure the UK’s promotion of Universal Human Rights had the most impact.
Focus on Freedom of Religion or Belief under the Coalition Government
Under the Coalition Government in 2010-2015 the FCO undertook encouraging work on human rights, with freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) forming a significant part of the overall human rights programme as one of eight main thematic priorities.
Baroness Warsi, then the Minister responsible for Human Rights at the FCO, established the advisory group on FoRB, a group of experts from all faiths and none to advise the Minster on how to best protect and promote FoRB worldwide. After Baroness Warsi left her post, FoRB remained a human rights priority and the advisory group continued to meet and advise the new Minister.
Human Rights Work Reconfigured
The most significant part of the FCO reconfiguration was changing the eight thematic human rights priorities to three human rights ‘themes’. The rationale behind this was not to relegate nor promote any of the existing priorities, but instead to create overarching themes that encompassed everything the FCO human rights work does, while allowing for that work to be prioritised and developed in locally appropriate ways.
The themes are:
- Democratic Values and the Rule of Law,
- Strengthening the Rules Based International System,
- Human Rights for a Stable World.
Casto sat at the table with other Christian leaders from the Huasteca region of Mexico. In April he had been talkative and his face had been animated. Now, in October, he was quiet and rarely looked up. One of the other leaders approached me privately and expressed concern about him. During the five-hour road trip to attend the workshop, he had told the other participants that he was so depressed that he hadn’t been able to attend church in a month.
This was the same man who, seven months earlier, had energetically defended his right to practice his religious beliefs at great cost. In March, he was summoned from his fields to appear at his community assembly in the village of Chichiltepec. Casto stopped his work and went to the assembly, accompanied by his cousin Juan. There, the village delegate (leader), Jesús Domínguez Hernández, told him to sign a document obligating him to renounce his Protestant beliefs – in violation of Mexico’s constitution, which protects freedom of religion or belief, and its international obligations, including the Inter-American Covenant on Human Rights which explicitly upholds the right to maintain or change ones religious beliefs.
Casto refused and Juan stood with him. The community assembly took the two young men by force and put them in a rustic jail cell carved into the side of a hill, with the bars of the door open to the chilly and damp weather. The two men were held there, with no sanitary facilities, for 30 hours. Casto was removed periodically to see if he would sign the document. He continued to refuse. Finally the village delegate realised their pressure tactics were not going to work, released the men, and gave Casto eighteen hours to leave the village – declaring it to be a ‘Catholic-only village’.
In the early hours of 1 July 2015, Pastor Hafiz Mengisto, senior minister of the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church in Sudan, was arrested after trying to prevent police officers from demolishing a building on church property, which they did not have authorisation to do. While in police custody, he sustained injuries to his head and ear that required medical attention upon his release. Pastor Mengisto was only acquitted of ‘obstructing a public servant from performing the duties of his office’ on 29 December 2015.
While his acquittal is welcome, his case is not an isolated incidence of harassment but is indicative of a continued and wide crackdown on human rights defenders (HRDs) – including religious leaders or members of faith communities making a stand for human rights within their community. HRDs face various challenges ranging from de jure discrimination and bureaucratic hassles to harassment, violence, torture and murder.
Is the international community waking up to reprisals against HRDs?
In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst drew attention to the “disturbing increase in the number of reprisals and acts of intimidation reported by defenders.” Today, thousands of human rights activists across the world face severe intimidation and harassment. One of the most difficult countries for human rights defenders is China where at least half of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers – many of them Christians – have been interrogated, detained and in some cases disappeared since 9 July 2015. At least 30 of the over 300 HRD’s interrogated during this period, as well as others connected to them, have vanished into China’s detention system.
Since the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998), the international community has increasingly recognised the role of HRDs in promoting human rights. The work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has been instrumental in this. Moreover, the adoption of UN resolutions on human rights defenders has ensured that their situation remains visible in international human rights platforms.
In November 2015, the UN General Assembly passed an important resolution calling for states to adopt strong and effective measures to protect human rights defenders. The resolution was passed with 117 countries voting for it and 14 countries – including several Human Rights Council members such as Pakistan, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia – voting against. A further 40 countries abstained from the vote. It’s clear that many countries, including several members of the Human Rights Council, still remain uncomfortable with the work of HRDs.