There is no time to lose in the appointment of a new EU Special Envoy for FoRB

On 10 September Christos Stylianides was sworn in as Greece’s Minister of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection. Unfortunately, his appointment leaves vacant once again the vital role of the European Union (EU)’s Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the EU.

Mr Stylianides held the position for just four months, and he was appointed over a year and a half after his predecessor’s mandate had ended. While it would be unfair to criticise Mr Stylianides himself for moving into his new role, it is essential that the EU does not leave the Special Envoy position vacant for as long as it did prior to his appointment.

Alongside the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of FoRB, the Special Envoy mandate is a key tool in the EU’s diplomatic arsenal. Prior to Mr Stylianides’ brief tenure , it was held for several years by the Slovakian politician Dr Ján Figeľ, who was acknowledged as playing a key role in securing the release of Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi, who spent years on death row on unfounded charges of blasphemy.

Dr Figeľ made key interventions in several other FoRB cases around the world, and also contributed to the thinking on and advancement of the right, including through the Punta del Este Declaration, which seeks to strengthen protections for FoRB in countries where it is contested by appealing to the concept of human dignity, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). His accomplishments in the FoRB arena inspired several EU countries to appoint their own FoRB envoys.

Dr Ján Figeľ visits the CSW office in 2017

A low priority?

Commenting on the post’s renewed vacancy, Dr Figeľ told the Catholic News Agency it was “a pity that there is no EU envoy for religious freedom and belief anymore,” adding “For the current Commission [the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch], it does not seem to be a priority, regrettably.”

This is concerning; the EU has repeatedly stressed its commitment to upholding and promoting the right to FoRB around the world, not least through the creation of the aforementioned FoRB guidelines in 2013. However, the lengthy delay between Dr Figeľ’s departure and the appointment of Mr Stylianides appears to denote a worrying decline in the significance of FoRB on the current Commission’s agenda.

Further supporting these concerns is the fact that the role itself appears to have been weakened under the current Commission. During Mr Stylianides’ brief tenure, the position was reconfigured to report to the European Commission’s Vice-President, Margaritis Schinas, rather than working with the European External Action Service (EEAS), indicating a shift to a more internally facing focus.

The seeming reticence on the part of the Commission may be due in part to the politicisation of FoRB and its instrumentalization by some parties to advance specific agendas. It could also be due to an underestimation of the role of religion or belief as often being the determining factors in policies and behaviours elsewhere in the world. However, it is vital that the Commission distinguishes FoRB, which is fundamental to the international human rights framework and which covers individuals espousing theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, from political agendas that are ultimately aimed at selective exclusion, and that it continues to advance the former by maintaining a human rights-based approach. 

Many of the world’s most serious conflicts are rooted in, or are exacerbated by, religious differences or the misappropriation of religion. The EU is generally viewed as a neutral broker; consequently, its interventions, including through the agencies of the Special Envoy, are essential to advancing international peace and security.

If the EU is serious about its commitments to FoRB, it is essential that it demonstrates this by appointing the next Special Envoy in a timely manner, and ensuring that the mandate holder is adequately resourced to carry out their work in facing the myriad challenges to FoRB in the world today. Ensuring the mandate reports to the EEAS would further assist in this regard.

Moreover, the Special Envoy should be integrated more holistically into EU human rights policy structures, in order to facilitate the emergence of an overarching FoRB policy strategy that is long-term and connected to other human rights strategies and activities.

The European People’s Party (EPP) Group has called for the position to be filled swiftly, with its Chairman and Vice-Chair writing that “the EU has all interest to make use of this tool as religious freedom is instrumental for peace among communities.”

What should the Special Envoy do?

Since the post was created in 2016, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia and the UK have all created similar positions. Any new Envoy would do well to work with these individuals, as well as with civil society organisations at both the international level, and within countries of concern wherever possible.

A new Envoy must also feed into the application of sanctions under the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, which was approved in December 2020. The sanctions regime is another vital tool in the EU’s arsenal, enabling the targeting of specific individuals responsible for violations of human rights; however, it currently lacks a mechanism for civil society engagement. This places the Envoy in a unique position to represent the concerns of civil society organisations in relation to potential targets for the imposition of sanctions.

No time to lose

When the EU finally appointed Mr Stylianides as Special Envoy earlier this year, rights groups like CSW were relieved that the bloc appeared once again to be affording the right to FoRB the attention it merits. It is essential that this remains the case, and that a new mandate holder is appointed as a matter of utmost priority. Failure to do so would send a disappointing message not only to civil society, but to victims of FoRB violations around the world.

From China to Nigeria, to Cuba and beyond, threats to FoRB remain prevalent across the globe; there is no time to lose.

By CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas CMG