Diplomacy and Determination: Five Years of the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Council of Ministers of the European Union

Council of the European Union, Brussels

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.

“Adopting the guidelines was a significant step forward for the EU’s engagement with FoRB. It implicitly acknowledged the pivotal role religion plays in the domestic and foreign policies of some of the EU’s key partners and the rising global importance of engaging with religion as an issue in international relations.”

Adopting the guidelines was a significant step forward for the EU’s engagement with FoRB. It implicitly acknowledged the pivotal role religion plays in the domestic and foreign policies of some of the EU’s key partners and the rising global importance of engaging with religion as an issue in international relations. It prompted formal recognition of a Parliamentary Intergroup on FoRB and Religious Tolerance in 2015 and the European Commission’s appointment of Ján Figeľ as Special Envoy on FoRB outside the EU in 2016. It also led directly to the mainstreaming of FoRB in bilateral human rights dialogues and other European External Action Service (EEAS) activities and documents, including special inclusion in the European Instrument for Human Rights’ (EIDHR) funding priorities, and a notable mention in the Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World.

Despite these positive steps forward, however, implementation of the guidelines still needs improving. A modal assessment of the EU’s action on FoRB conducted in July 2017 by François Foret,* concluded that EU policy on FoRB is limited by the association of religion with violence. EU delegation survey responses indicate that religion is generally reduced to a sub-facet of security discourse and in-country advocacy on FoRB is adjusted according to levels of insecurity. Overall, the data shows that implementation of the FoRB guidelines is hampered by a lack of understanding about FoRB and/or how the guidelines should be used to protect it. To counteract these issues, training and monitoring processes urgently need improving.

To protect FoRB, people need to know what it is

As Foret’s study highlighted, FoRB literacy and awareness of the guidelines amongst EU politicians and diplomats remains staggeringly low. The EEAS conducts annual training on FoRB in Brussels and materials on FoRB are included in staff induction packs but this is simply not enough. Training needs to be more frequent, systematic and embedded not only in Brussels but in EU foreign ministries and delegations around the world.

“Mainstreaming FoRB in EU external action requires actively engaging parliamentarians and diplomats working across a spectrum of geographies and human rights issues, including those focused on inter-connected matters such as trade and business.”

Mainstreaming FoRB in EU external action requires actively engaging parliamentarians and diplomats working across a spectrum of geographies and human rights issues, including those focused on inter-connected matters such as trade and business. Training in FoRB needs to be cultivated as an integral part of entry into a new diplomatic post or location and strategically positioned as ensuring coherence across EU human rights action.

In addition, EU member states and delegations need to take local ownership of training materials developed by the EU institutions in Brussels. Standardised materials can control and improve content quality, whilst local delivery boosts participation and facilitates adaptation and, critically, translation. A valuable new resource developed explicitly for this type of scenario is the FoRB Learning Platform, which uses animated films to explore the aspects of FoRB, ways it can be violated and how it is related to other rights and issues. Such a resource could be deployed effectively by the EU, especially if supplemented with best practice examples from EU delegations or member states working on the ground.

Returning to language, translations of the guidelines – which apparently do exist – must be made easily accessible online.

Training equips people to monitor FoRB violations effectively

Improving training has intrinsic value, but increasing awareness and expertise also supports better monitoring and analysis of FoRB situations. Accurate recording of rights violations is an ongoing challenge, but it is notable that the ProtectDefenders.eu mechanism Index of Alerts, a key data point relied on by the EU for prioritising categories of human rights defenders (HRDs), records that for 2017, out of 942 violations, only 5 were against those working on religious issues. At face value and in CSW’s estimation, this appears to be serious under-reporting.

There are a number of reasons the figure could be so low; it might be that HRDs working on a range of intersecting rights are categorised under another portfolio or perhaps they don’t self-identify as working on FoRB, or perhaps unfamiliarity with FoRB within organisations collating the data means cases slip under the radar. Whatever the reason, the figure epitomises the variable to poor quality of reporting on FoRB in the field and highlights the drastic need for better informed and coordinated monitoring processes.

Without resources and commitment, they’re just guidelines

Improved training and monitoring can only be realised with capacity and commitment; both of which must come from the EU’s member states. It is welcome to see the EEAS motivated to stimulate discussion on how the guidelines can be better implemented, and civil society is primed and ready to offer valuable expertise to the review process and practical output, but lasting change can only occur with a coordinated lead from the EU capitals.

The guidelines express the EU member states’ determination to protect FoRB. With the challenges and expectations laid bare, with social hostility rising, violence committed against religious minorities with impunity and religious tensions brewing at home and abroad, now is the time for that feisty rhetoric to be put to the test. If the member states step up, then there is yet hope that the guidelines can have their full intended effect.

By Amy Shepherd, CSW’s EU Advocacy Manager

* François Foret is a Professor of political science who has written widely on the role of religion in European politics.

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