European Union (EU) policy on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) has seen several positive developments over the past decade, one of the most significant being the 2013 EU Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of FoRB.
Achieving consensus on the guidelines was no easy task as the 28 Member States have various models of church-state relations; some even have legislation or internal challenges that constitute obstacles to FoRB and can undermine its human rights message overseas, such as blasphemy laws. However agreement on the guidelines produced a common reference point for Member States and commits the EU to using a variety of tools to protect the victims of FoRB violations worldwide.
The European Parliament (EP) Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance aims to be the watchdog that ensures their implementation.
As Ján Figel starts his second year as the EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the European Union, the last 12 months of his time in this new mandate show the respect for this role that has developed amongst sceptics and the potential for his role going forward.
In under 12 months Mr Figel has raised the profile of FoRB as a human rights priority for the EU, highlighting the important role religion and belief, including the right not to believe, plays in the daily experience of millions across the globe.
Early on in his first term the Special Envoy said “FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” At the end of his first year, there has been a visible widening of EU engagement on this sensitive human right, as part of its dialogue and development policies.
“FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” – Ján Figel, EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief
Sudan is one of several countries with poor human rights records which Mr Figel has visited in his first year. Such visits open up opportunities for a senior EU diplomat to engage with religious leaders and religious communities to address societal hostilities, in addition to working with government officials.
From left to right: David Burrowes MP, Sir David Amess MP, Cardinal Bo, and CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas. Photo Credit: mazur/catholicnews.org.uk
In the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, the parliamentary chapel just underneath Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament, Burma’s first-ever Cardinal celebrated Mass.
“Coming from a country, Burma, that is just emerging from over half a century of cruel, brutal military dictatorship, a country torn apart by war, ravaged by religious and ethnic persecution, with rampant corruption and dire poverty, into a new Easter dawn of democracy, to stand here in this chapel with all that it symbolises and represents is an immense joy,” Cardinal Charles Bo said. “Britain and the British Parliament has a long history with Burma; many of you have been with us in our darkest hour, stretching out a hand of friendship and solidarity in our time of need, raising a voice for us when we were voiceless.”
It was just one of many beautiful and significant moments during Cardinal Bo’s almost three-week tour of the United Kingdom and Brussels, which began with Mass in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow, with a piper on the door. The tour then took us the length and breadth of the UK, and to Westminster and the European Union.
On Friday 6 May, whilst Brussels was enjoying a bank holiday, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker announced the appointment of ex-Commissioner Jan Figel as the first EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the EU.
Why has this appointment been made?
This appointment followed a little noticed paragraph in the European Parliament (EP) resolution on the systematic mass murder of religious minorities by the so-called ‘ISIS/Daesh’, which had called in paragraph 10 for such a posting. Calls made in EP resolutions are notoriously under-implemented; even the European External Action Service (EEAS) staff seemed to be taken by surprise by the announcement, which as it concerns FoRB outside the EU, falls under their remit.
The appointment, thus, has left many in Brussels wondering what it will actually mean in practice. During his speech to the Vatican, President Juncker said that “Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right which is part of the foundation of the European Union.” This is consistent with a growing importance being given to FoRB over the past couple of years; the EU Guidelines on this topic emerged in June 2013. In 2015, the European Parliament established an EP Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance and the commission appointed coordinators on anti-Semitism and anti-Islamophobia within the EU.
What is clear is that Jan Figel will act as a special advisor to Neven Mimicia, the European Commissioner for International Development. Whereas other advisors to commissioners have clearly defined mandates on the EC website, the fact that Jan Figel only has a title indicates that he will have some flexibility to shape his work.
Why is it important?