The European Parliament’s Watchdog on Freedom of Religion or Belief: Bark or Bite?

European Union (EU) policy on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) has seen several positive developments over the past decade, one of the most significant being the 2013 EU Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of FoRB.

Achieving consensus on the guidelines was no easy task as the 28 Member States have various models of church-state relations; some even have legislation or internal challenges that constitute obstacles to FoRB and can undermine its human rights message overseas, such as blasphemy laws. However agreement on the guidelines produced a common reference point for Member States and commits the EU to using a variety of tools to protect the victims of FoRB violations worldwide.

The European Parliament (EP) Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance aims to be the watchdog that ensures their implementation.

A watchdog that barks and has increasing bite

Through the EP Intergroup’s actions, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) has gained greater visibility across the EU institutions. The parliamentary hearings and the bilateral meetings it organises between its Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) with other institutions provoke deeper discussions of where more EU action should take place.

Given that the European Parliament monitors the EU’s human rights performance, and can make recommendations to any institution it wishes to address as appropriate, its willingness to monitor progress towards FoRB through the Intergroup is significant.

Such recommendations have the potential to help to raise the profile of this human right and achieve better FoRB literacy across the EU institutions in conjunction with the activities of the Special Envoy on FoRB outside of the EU, Jan Figel. The inspiration for the European Commission’s decision to appoint Figel came from a recommendation in a 2016 European Parliament resolution, drafted by MEPs committed to FoRB.

Since being agreed, some implementation of the guidelines has occurred. Amongst other measures, FoRB now features in the EU’s Human Rights Action Plans; the High Representative has made public statements on some cases where this right has been violated and training is now offered to EU delegation staff and other diplomats by the European External Action Service (EEAS) with the active participation of civil society, the Commission and the EEAS FoRB desk officer. That said, much more needs to be done.

The Intergroup report: under-resourced with an unclear methodological approach

It is in this context that on 20 June 2017, the EP Intergroup, which is currently chaired by two Dutch MEPs, Peter van Dalen and Dennis de Jong, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, launched the third in a series of reports on the state of freedom of religion or belief in the world.

Critics label it a poor man’s copy of the annual report commissioned by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), but USCIRF has been around longer and is better resourced. They also question the inclusion of certain countries over others. Judging what to cover in the report is not a straight-forward task. There is no shortage of available materials of varying quality on the discrimination and persecution of different minority groups worldwide, making it important for the EP Intergroup to select pertinent and accurate information. Adding to this challenge, many organisations that produce such literature only focus on specific religious or secular groups, rather than providing a general FoRB analysis within a country and the Intergroup lacks the resources and capacity for field research. Unsurprisingly, perhaps such challenges led the Intergroup to publish a call for expressions of interest to identify a consortium that could help it to develop a more robust methodology.

So why does the report matter?

Tellingly, page 10 of the Intergroup’s report notes: “it is not unfair to say that hardly any of the 2016 recommendations to the EEAS, the Commission and the Council were implemented”, indicating that there is still some way to go before its authority as a watchdog can be fully realised. However, in order to grow in membership and stature within the EP, the Intergroup must continue to make bold observations such as: “We witness a trade-off between economic, in particular trade-related, interests and human rights policies” (pg. 11); or that, “the visibility of these activities [by other EU institutions to implement the guidelines] is weak” (pg. 11).

“We witness a trade-off between economic, in particular trade-related, interests and human rights policies” – EP Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance

The report also notes that the EP Intergroup is still waiting on a full report on the implementation of the guidelines; a call that MEPs can make. Indeed, getting such information can be a challenge. As the intergroup rightly notes, neither the EU annual report on human rights nor the mid-term review of the human rights and democracy action plan provide details of the guidelines’ implementation, while country strategy papers and other documents are not made public.

It would be good for the EU to have an evaluation of the implementation of the guidelines, as well as consistent and detailed reporting on FoRB by its overseas delegations, especially in countries of concern. In such countries, perhaps the development of country-specific FoRB action plans, drafted in consultation with member states and civil society, could help to step up the EU’s efforts to protect this right.

“It would be good for the EU to have an evaluation of the implementation of the guidelines, as well as consistent and detailed reporting on FoRB by its overseas delegations, especially in countries of concern.”

Research by Prof. Francois Foret of the Brussels Free University (ULB) and by the Swedish Mission Council (SMC) illustrate the ongoing challenges with implementing the guidelines and the task facing the watchdog. Both Foret’s study on EU institutions (EU overseas delegations in particular), and the SMC’s research on an EU Member State (Sweden) reveal that the guidelines remain relatively unknown by those who should implement them. The SMC found that even where FoRB violations are common, this right may not be a priority focus, or even identified by short-staffed, under-resourced embassies as an issue at all. This mirrors the findings of Prof. Foret’s study; that delegations are ill-equipped to implement the guidelines given the low levels of awareness and expertise.

Training, training and more training

In its report, the Intergroup also identifies the need to offer more training for diplomatic staff; a call also being made by civil society organisations such as CSW, as a member of the Brussels-based European Platform against Religious Intolerance and Discrimination (EPRID). Indeed, in line with paragraph 67 of the EU’s FoRB Guidelines, the EEAS should consider working with Member States and civil society organisations to offer mandatory FoRB training for all of its diplomats.

Any long-term strategy to implement the guidelines requires the mainstreaming of an understanding of freedom of religion or belief internally and must be rooted in efforts to promote religious literacy and education within the EEAS and within member state foreign services.

This has begun, but the scope of material covered and the number of participants at trainings should be expanded over the coming years. This would improve the quality of the observations made by diplomats in the field and the quality of information received by headquarters that is used for strategic planning.

The EU’s multilateral role

The world looks on – especially those countries that would rather bury this human right. As the intergroup report also notes, the EU has hosted side-events on FoRB at the UN’s Human Rights Council and worked on the annual FoRB resolution. And, in part thanks to the efforts of EU member state delegations at the UN in Geneva and New York, CSW was able to obtain its ECOSOC status.

The EP Intergroup may need more resources, but it is on the right track. It is welcome that there is an EU institution publicly recording what progress the EU is visibly making on this human right and that MEPs use their political power to remind the other institutions of their own commitments. The interim report may not provide a comprehensive encyclopedia of FoRB violations, but it should not seek to serve that purpose. If it can maintain its position of a watchdog, this could be far more valuable.

By Dr Susan Kerr, CSW’s Europe Team Leader