Remembering the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief

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.

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A new tool in the toolbox: The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime

On 7 December, the EU officially approved the creation of its newest human rights mechanism, the European Union (EU) Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

It will enable the European bloc to impose EU-wide travel bans on, freeze the assets of and prohibit the availability of funds and economic resources to individuals and entities who have committed or been associated with serious human rights abuses. It will target both state and non-state actors, regardless of where they are in the world and where they committed their crimes.

The mechanism is informally known as the EU-styled Magnitsky Act, after the US model that preceded it. The US Magnitsky Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2012 and was originally designed to target Russian officials who were responsible for the death of the Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

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EU FoRB Day – A call for the renewal of the mandate of the Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief outside of the European Union

Seven years ago, the EU Guidelines on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) were adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council. Today, the FoRB community celebrates this informally as ‘EU FoRB Day’ and civil society take this opportunity to call for the renewal of the mandate of the Special Envoy.

This past April came and went with no decision by the Commission on the future of the mandate of the Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the EU, which ended on 30 November 2019.

In January 2019, one of the last resolutions by the last EU Parliament was to lend its support to the renewal. The COVID-19 crisis notwithstanding, the Commission’s hesitation despite letters by MEPs and civil society calling for the renewal of the mandate, sends a signal to Europeans and the international community about its reticence to continue to promote this fundamental right.

Freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It protects the right of individuals to practise the religion or belief of their choice, or none at all – a freedom which is under threat in many parts of the world.

Against this backdrop, the Special Envoy role matters a great deal.

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The United Nations Human Rights Committee Unpacked

What is the Human Rights Committee?

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRCttee) reviews the commitments of States to, and implementation of, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). All States party to the ICCPR are required to report to this treaty body comprised of independent experts after the first year of acceding to the ICCPR, and then at regular intervals thereafter.

The State under review is supposed to report on how well it feels it has been implementing the Articles of the ICCPR. This report is examined by the HRCttee members alongside submissions from civil society actors before each review, after which the State is questioned on its human rights record and commitment to the ICCPR. Violations, cases of concern, and constitutional inconsistencies are among some of the issues highlighted by the Committee during its review.

Once the concerns have been addressed, a document outlining the Committee’s concluding observations, i.e. its concerns and recommendations to the State Party, is published.

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Brexit is not a time for the UK to step back from the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief

As of 31 January, the UK has officially left the European Union, and while the exact nature of what a post-Brexit Britain will look like remains hotly debated, one thing is imperative: the UK must not relinquish its role as a leading voice in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

According to a report published by the Pew Research Center in 2019, both government restrictions on religion and social hostilities motivated by religion saw a marked increase between 2007 and 2017. It is estimated that 52 governments impose “high” or “very high” restrictions on the right to FoRB, and that people experience high levels of social hostilities involving religion in 56 countries of the198 countries that were monitored.

Against this backdrop, it is vital that the UK demonstrates a firm commitment to protecting this right. The government must speak boldly when challenging FoRB violations, raise FoRB in multilateral fora and sufficiently resource the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to raise FoRB in bilateral and multilateral meetings.

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