Nepal’s criminalisation of conversion seems to protect Hinduism at the expense of other religions.

Three years on from the date that Nepal adopted its new constitution, there are concerns about its ‘anti-conversion’ clause, which seemed designed to specifically protect Hinduism at the expense of other religions.

The clause, in Article 26 (3) of the constitution, states:

“No person shall, in the exercise of the right conferred by this Article, do, or cause to be done, any act which may be contrary to public health, decency and morality or breach public peace, or convert another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardize other’s religion and such act shall be punishable by law.”

These provisions were strengthened in the Penal Code 2017 which came into force in August 2018. Section 158 states that “No person shall convert any one from one religion to another or make attempt to or abet such conversion”  and carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to fifty thousand rupees.

The criminalisation of conversion is a direct infringement on freedom of religion or belief as it robs individuals of the right to change their religion. These provisions also threaten the right to freedom of expression as they could be used to prohibit a range of legitimate expressions of religion or belief such as charitable activities or speaking about one’s faith.

Fuelling religious intolerance

Similar laws exist in Burma and several states in India, where they have been abused to foster social intolerance and violence towards peaceful religious activities.  Recent events appear to confirm initial fears that the laws would have the same effect in Nepal.

For example, in May 2018 four Christian churches were set on fire and one was bombed in just over a week. No-one was killed in the attacks, but these incidents illustrate a worrying increase in hostilities towards Christian groups in Nepal, and suggest that religious intolerance is increasing in the country.

Another indicator of increased religious intolerance in Nepal is the cancellation of December 25th as a public holiday by the Nepalese government. Now, only Christian civil servants are given a Christmas holiday. The decision to cancel this public holiday is considered the result of strong anti-Christian tendencies; the fact that the government gave in to these pressures illuminates the extent to which such tendencies are becoming more prevalent in Nepal.

Nepal has already seen several cases which demonstrate the ease with which the constitution’s anti-conversion laws can be misused.

In June 2016, Article 26(3) was used to charge eight Christians in Charikot with attempting to convert children through distributing a comic book on the story of Jesus. While the accused were acquitted of all charges in December 2016, the Religious Liberty Forum Nepal have since documented multiple similar cases which have taken place this year, these include:

  • Sonia Chanda Thakuri, arrested along with her six month-old baby on 22 March after being falsely accused with attempting religious conversion and destroying Hindu idols. Sonia has since been released, but her case remains ongoing.
  • Devi Rai, arrested with her friends in Chitwan on 30 April and accused of attempting to convert a Hindu family and encouraging them to destroy the Hindu idols. They were reportedly released a few days after the arrest.
  • Sumitra Gauli, Radhika Maharjan and Phuldevi Bhattarai, arrested in their church in Kathmandu on 8 May, falsely accused of attempted religious conversion.
  • Bhim Br. Pradhan and Nabin Kumar Mandal, arrested in Morang on 19 May for presenting Christian materials on a laptop. They are accused of speaking against Hindu gods and attempted conversion.

It is clear from the above cases that the anti-conversion laws can be used to make false accusations against anyone, which makes them highly vulnerable to misinterpretation and misuse for personal vendettas.

The cases also appear to suggest that the criminalisation of conversion is specifically designed to protect Hinduism.

Although Article 4 (1) of the constitution claims that Nepal is a secular state, the word secular is defined as the “protection of religion and culture being practised since ancient times and religious and cultural freedom,” which has been interpreted as affording special position to Hinduism. The constitution also stipulates that ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (the Hindu faith) will be protected by the state

This continues a long-standing history of protection of Hinduism in Nepal. In a famous case long before the new constitution was introduced, Christian pastor Charles Mendes was charged with “creating a disturbance to Hinduism” by distributing pamphlets about Christianity and eventually sentenced to six years in prison.

It is important to note that not all Hindus benefit from the anti-conversion laws. The Dalit minority group face severe discrimination in the Hindu caste system, many Dalits therefore change their religion in order to escape this. By prohibiting this practice the anti-conversion laws essentially lock Dalits and other minority groups into positions of subordination within the caste system.

Falling foul of international law

Nepal has made several national and international commitments to uphold and implement acts that will protect fundamental human rights. The country ratified the ICCPR in 1991, which it followed by introducing a national law, the Nepal Act, to fulfil its obligations. The Covenant is legally binding, and Articles 18 and 19 guarantee the right to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression respectively. By undermining these two fundamental rights, Nepal’s anti-conversion laws mean that the country falls short of its obligations under the ICCPR.

Nepal has also been elected to be a member of the HRC from 2018 to 2020, which makes these contraventions of international human rights law even more striking. As the country is now supposedly responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, it must first prioritise the promotion and protection of such rights within its own borders.

Under Nepal’s last Universal Periodic Review Cycle in November 2015, the government chose not to accept recommendations from both the USA and Spain relating to the amendment of the constitution, in order to ensure that freedom of religion or belief was fully upheld.

The misuse of the anti-conversion laws observed in subsequent years demonstrate that this cannot continue: Nepal must amend Article 26(3) of the constitution to prohibit only forceful conversion, and remove any clause prohibiting conversion in and of itself.

As a secular republic, Nepal now has the opportunity to achieve remarkable political, economic and social transformation since it attained ‘independence’ from a Hindu monarchy that ruled for over 200 years. To do so, it must not succumb to policies and practices that pave the way for polarisation of the country’s cultural and religious diversity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The UN Belongs to All of Us: Chinese Prisoners of Conscience Speak Out

China blog

Welcome to the United Nations. It’s your world.

Until recently, when you accessed the United Nations (UN) website, these words would appear. They’re still used on some webpages, and the sentiment behind them still stands.

The UN is often the subject of criticism, and its flaws are well-documented, yet it remains one of the most important arenas for raising human rights concerns, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Three times a year, in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Human Rights Council comes together and UN staff, member state delegations and non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) all rub shoulders in meetings, formal sessions and – frequently – impromptu chats over coffee and in canteen queues.

On the agenda are some of the most serious human rights situations in the world.

This is also an opportunity for NGOs like Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) to organise side events running parallel to discussions at the Council, where victims of human rights violations, as well as experts and activists, can present their cases in an open forum. In March 2018, CSW hosted one of its first side events at the UN Human Rights Council since obtaining ECOSOC Consultative Status: an opportunity to discuss some of the most severe and complex challenges to religious communities in China.

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Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

CAR blog

Next week the United Nations’ (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) is holding a high level dialogue to assess the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR). The last time the HRC considered the situation of CAR was in September 2017, when President Faustin-Archange Touadéra made an unexpected appearance, and addressed member states, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights mandate holders.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) was present during this address and noted the positive engagement CAR maintains with the UN’s human rights mechanisms, including by granting access to the Independent Expert on CAR, Ms. Marie-Therese Keita Bocoum.

End of transition was not the end of the security crisis

During his speech, President Touadéra noted that the end of the transitional government and the return to democracy did not bring an end to the security crisis in CAR. Since November 2016, armed groups that were once part of the Seleka Alliance have clashed in the north and eastern regions. This violence has been characterised by the targeting of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure leading to mass displacement.

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Why Faith Actors are Essential to Promoting Religious Tolerance: a Guest Blog from Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon

The international community marks Human Rights Day on 10 December, the day on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948.

I have decided to use this occasion to shine a spotlight on Article 18 of the UDHR, which enshrines the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. In doing so, I am delighted to join forces with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which does excellent work to promote Freedom of Religion of Belief around the world.

Some have suggested that Freedom of Religion of Belief is a relatively neglected human right – indeed it has been called “the orphaned right”.  Whether or not this has been true in the past, it is certainly not being neglected by the UK Government.

I cherish the right to freedom of religion or belief. I celebrate the fact that people of all faiths and none are free to follow their religion or belief in the UK.  But I do not forget for one moment that many millions of others are denied this universal human right. Denial of this freedom does deep and lasting damage to many of our fellow global citizens, striking at the very heart of their way of life and often putting them and their families in danger.

Millions suffer discrimination and unspeakable levels of persecution due to their religious identity.  Some members of religious minorities, such as the Baha’i in Iran, Yazidis in Iraq, Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan are attacked or arrested; others are regarded as second class, and unable to access key services such as education, health or justice.  Denial of religious freedom exacerbates the suffering of innocent people in many of today’s crises and conflicts – including the Rohinga in Burma, Nigeria and the Middle East.  It also hinders peace and reconciliation.

This government will not remain silent in the face of violations and abuses of human rights, including the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. We will work through diplomatic channels, bilaterally and in concert with our international partners, to press the case for freedom and tolerance. If we are to make a difference, I believe we must act together: government, civil society and faith leaders.

This brings me to the main message of this blog.  Many actors have a role in ensuring that everyone enjoys the human rights set out in the UDHR. First among those are the states whose responsibility it is to defend those rights. Faith leaders too have great influence and it is particularly important that they speak up for tolerance.  Religion often reaches parts of societies that government cannot.  All the world’s major religions preach peace and tolerance.  So on this Human Rights Day I pay tribute to those faith leaders who, true to their chosen faiths, promote the rights of others to practice their chosen faith or belief.

It can be a daunting challenge to defend Freedom of Religion or Belief in today’s increasingly hostile world.  At times progress can appear a distant dream.  But we must not falter. Too many have been denied this right for too long. Now is the time to stand united and to demand, once and for all, that the freedoms described in the UDHR should be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

Dignitaries Sign Letter Supporting Appeal For CSW’s UN Accreditation

Member States of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

Re: CSW’s application for UN ECOSOC Consultative Status

 

Excellencies,

We are writing to you requesting that you vote in favour of Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s (CSW’s) appeal for UN ECOSOC consultative status in April 2017.

CSW is a human rights advocacy organisation with almost 40 years’ experience of promoting the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in over 20 countries worldwide. Its advocacy work is firmly rooted in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

CSW engages regularly with United Nations mechanisms providing evidence-based analysis. It applied in 2009 for consultative status in order to broaden the scope of its work with key human rights advocacy platforms, including the Human Rights Council and General Assembly.

On 3 February 2017, the UN Committee on NGOs voted to reject CSW’s application after repeated deferrals. Since 2009, CSW has provided timely and comprehensive answers to over 80 questions from the Committee, to no avail.

We, the undersigned, are disappointed at the Committee’s decision and deeply concerned about the wider message that the rejection of CSW’s application sends regarding the Committee’s commitment to facilitating NGO access to UN mechanisms.

CSW’s situation is not unique. In May 2016, over 230 NGOs raised concerns about the Committee’s repeated deferral and denial of NGO applications for consultative status, which effectively blocks a number of NGOs from participating fully in UN processes.

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From Deferral to Denial: CSW Continues to be Blocked from the UN by the NGO Committee

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“Without the participation of non-governmental organisations and civil society groups, no initiative, however visionary, can be fully achieved” – Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon

Civil society participation at the United Nations (UN) is not an ‘add-on’. Rather, inclusive and genuine NGO engagement increases accountability and strengthens the work of the UN, making it more effective and better-informed. This has been flagged numerous times by many of the key human rights experts within the UN.

The importance of the contribution of civil society actors to the capacity, efficiency and impact of the UN Special Procedures and other human rights mechanisms was stressed in the latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, meanwhile, has pointed out the significant obligation international human rights law places on Member States to respect the freedoms which enable civil society to develop and operate.

Given the role civil society has to play in the protection and promotion of human rights, the recent decision by the UN NGO Committee to deny Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s access to the UN – after arbitrary deferral of its application since 2009 – sends a controversial and troubling message to civil society. Far from being just an administrative hurdle or minor oversight, the decision is effectively an attempt to silence the voice of an NGO promoting FoRB– thus undermining the protection of FoRB within the UN system.

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From Pledges to Action: Human Rights Defenders play a vital role in advancing justice

Moving from official commitments to tangible changes people’s lives remains a key challenge in the realisation of human rights. I am reminded of the wonderful quote from African-American civil rights campaigner, Philip Randolph, who said, “Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”

“Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.” – Philip Randolph

This quote draws attention to the importance of promoting human rights while reminding us that very rarely do human rights “just happen”; they are regularly contested, challenged and often only progressed through the active work of individual human rights defenders (HRDs) and NGOs who promote and defend human rights through activities such as advocacy, campaigning, demonstrations, and human rights journalism – whether paid or unpaid and regardless of geographical location.

The right and responsibility to promote human rights – either individually or in association with others – is the cornerstone of all human rights work.

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Can the UN be true to its democratic principles without reforming the NGO Committee?

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Broad participation and representation, including vibrant civil society participation, are essential prerequisites for democratic development. However, as the United Nations (UN) marks the International Day of Democracy today, it is clear that the UN system faces severe internal challenges on this front.

Importance of ECOSOC NGO Committee

The access a number of NGOs have to the UN has been continuously blocked by the The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Committee on NGOs through arbitrary deferrals and denial of ECOSOC consultative status.

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Aleppo Bleeds as the Picture of Another Syrian Child Pricks the World’s Conscience

Many newspapers across the world today have chosen as their main image a photograph of a five year-old Syrian boy who has just survived an airstrike. Like that of another little Syrian boy called Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last year, the image has gone viral.

It appears that once again the image of a Syrian child has pricked the world’s collective conscience, igniting renewed efforts to alleviate the suffering of Syrian civilians.

Khalid Albaih Syria cartoon credit Khalid Albaih

Image credit: Khalid Albaih https://www.facebook.com/albaih

 Aleppo as a microcosm for the Syrian Conflict

The Syrian conflict has a prominent sectarian aspect for which the battle for Aleppo is almost a microcosm, with the government and Shi’a militia on one side, and the largely-Islamist armed opposition groups on the other.

Within this complex picture, civilians from all sides are increasingly vulnerable as none of the warring parties have shown commitment to or respect for international humanitarian law, especially in terms of non-combatants, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and other human rights.

Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria used to have 4 million inhabitants. Today nearly half are displaced, either internally or externally.

The city has been a battlefield since 2012, and as the overall situation in Syria has deteriorated relentlessly, attention on the suffering of its inhabitants has ebbed and flowed dependent on fresh atrocities.

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Religious Leaders as Human Rights Defenders?

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.

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