Three quarters of the world’s population lives in countries with severe restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) – in fact, it’s one of the most widely-violated human rights in the world.
This blog is all about FoRB; how to better understand the different aspects of this often-overlooked right, the situation in countries where this and other rights are violated – and the perpetrators and victims at the centre of it all.
Expert analysis by members of CSW’s advocacy team, who work in over 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, will put a spotlight on FoRB issues in the news and CSW’s research.
CSW’s 2015 report on violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba detailed an unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum.
Figures compiled by CSW, which are not exhaustive but which serve as an indicator of the level of FoRB violations, reveal a tenfold increase – with 2,300 separate violations recorded in 2015 compared to 220 in 2014.
Many incidents involved entire churches or, in the case of arrests, dozens of victims.
Commenting on the findings, CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “CSW doesn’t use the word ‘unprecedented’ lightly to refer to violations of freedom of religion or belief in Cuba in 2015. Following an upward trend in violations in recent years, 2015 witnessed a spike as the authorities deployed ever more public and brutal tactics to target churches across the denominational spectrum, regardless of their legal status.”
“It is clear that despite promises of reform, the government is determined to maintain a tight grip on civil society, including churches. We commend the courage of religious groups who have spoken out publicly to denounce these violations and to call for the right to freedom of religion or belief to be upheld. We urge the international community to stand with them and to hold Cuba to account for these human rights violations,” he added.
Below is a digital illustration highlighting the crackdown on churches in Cuba.
Click here to read CSW’s report in full.
In the early hours of 1 July 2015, Pastor Hafiz Mengisto, senior minister of the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church in Sudan, was arrested after trying to prevent police officers from demolishing a building on church property, which they did not have authorisation to do. While in police custody, he sustained injuries to his head and ear that required medical attention upon his release. Pastor Mengisto was only acquitted of ‘obstructing a public servant from performing the duties of his office’ on 29 December 2015.
While his acquittal is welcome, his case is not an isolated incidence of harassment but is indicative of a continued and wide crackdown on human rights defenders (HRDs) – including religious leaders or members of faith communities making a stand for human rights within their community. HRDs face various challenges ranging from de jure discrimination and bureaucratic hassles to harassment, violence, torture and murder.
Is the international community waking up to reprisals against HRDs?
In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst drew attention to the “disturbing increase in the number of reprisals and acts of intimidation reported by defenders.” Today, thousands of human rights activists across the world face severe intimidation and harassment. One of the most difficult countries for human rights defenders is China where at least half of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers – many of them Christians – have been interrogated, detained and in some cases disappeared since 9 July 2015. At least 30 of the over 300 HRD’s interrogated during this period, as well as others connected to them, have vanished into China’s detention system.
Since the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998), the international community has increasingly recognised the role of HRDs in promoting human rights. The work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has been instrumental in this. Moreover, the adoption of UN resolutions on human rights defenders has ensured that their situation remains visible in international human rights platforms.
In November 2015, the UN General Assembly passed an important resolution calling for states to adopt strong and effective measures to protect human rights defenders. The resolution was passed with 117 countries voting for it and 14 countries – including several Human Rights Council members such as Pakistan, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia – voting against. A further 40 countries abstained from the vote. It’s clear that many countries, including several members of the Human Rights Council, still remain uncomfortable with the work of HRDs.