There have been numerous case examples of acts of violence based on religion or belief from every corner of the world – but one that repeatedly stands out for me is the incident that occurred back in 2008, in Kandhamal district, Odisha, India.
Kandhamal is home to some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in Odisha. On 25 August 2008, it was the epicentre of widespread communal violence targeting the Christian community. Local monitoring groups estimate that over 90 people were killed with at least 54,000 displaced, over 300 churches destroyed, and unknown numbers of women brutally sexually assaulted by groups belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that espouse Hindutva ideology. More than a decade on, and most of the victims are yet to receive justice. In addition, attacks on religious minorities and on freedom of expression continue, and a lack of official condemnation towards acts of intimidation and violence has further empowered these groups.
International Day Commemorating Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief
In 2019, in an effort to recognise, respond to and prevent such acts from occurring, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), designated 22 August as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
The resolution establishing the international day does not highlight any specific religion or belief group, but refers to all victims, regardless of creed. It strongly deplores all acts of violence against persons on the basis of their religion or belief specifically, and “any such acts directed against their homes, businesses, properties, schools, cultural centres or places of worship, as well as all attacks on and in religious places, sites and shrines that are in violation of international law”.
Remarkably, the resolution received broad support and recognition from UN Member States across the world. It was tabled by Poland alongside Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and the USA, and subsequently cosponsored by over 80 states, including the UK. However, with global recognition comes global responsibility; both the responsibility to commemorate victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief, and the responsibility to protect and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all.
Unfortunately, the kind of religiously motivated violence that occurred in Kandhamal is a common violation of the right to FoRB. Preventing such acts and ensuring perpetrators are brought to justice are critical steps in guaranteeing the full right in accordance with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Furthermore, the resolution that founded the day emphasises the interdependent, interrelated and mutually reinforcing nature of human rights by highlighting the role of such fundamental rights as freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and freedom of association in combatting all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. By working together, we can ensure these rights are advanced, respected, protected and fulfilled.
It is a day with a call for action
If we are to prevent such appalling events as occurred in Kandhamal from happening again, and if we are to ensure those and other victims secure justice, then we must use this day of commemoration to reflect deeply on this recurring violence, and to pledge to respond to it far more effectively.
My hope is that this day will serve as an opportunity to not only heighten our awareness of the severity and pervasiveness of religiously motivated violence and spur us to address ongoing egregious violations of FoRB and other intersecting rights, but also to galvanise efforts to tackle prevailing climates of impunity by seeking timely justice for victims and promoting long-term positive changes.
The International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief is essentially a call to action. The resolution specifically invites all UN Member States to observe the day in an appropriate manner alongside organisations of the UN system, other international and regional organisations and members of civil society. It also reminds nations of their “primary responsibility to promote and protect human rights, including the human rights of persons belonging to religious minorities, and specifically their right to exercise their religion or belief freely.”
I therefore urge the UN Member States who acted with such unity to establish this crucially important day to commemorate it by consistently standing in solidarity with victims of violence who are targeted due to their religion or belief, taking action to end the violence when it occurs, and preventing it from occurring by acting swiftly on early warning signs. We must do everything in our power to condemn violence against religion or belief communities, provide support and assistance to victims and address impunity wherever it occurs.
By CSW’s Founder President, Mervyn Thomas CMG