Advancing freedom of religion or belief in the new European parliament: Three suggestions for new MEPs

Last week, citizens of EU member states cast their votes in the European parliamentary elections, the outcome of which will define European politics for the next five years.

The outcomes included a rise in new pan-European parties and those at the fringes of the political spectrum. Although the two largest political families, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), and centre-left Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), remain the largest groupings in the parliament overall, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will need to find ways to collaborate and coalitions will be more important than ever.

As these elections usher in many new MEPs eager to get to grips with all that there is to learn about the EU political landscape, CSW has three key recommendations to make to those seeking to uphold and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in their new role.

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The Special Envoy Mandate: The Litmus Test for EU Policy on Freedom of Religion or Belief

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Tomorrow, the European Parliament sub-committee on human rights (DROI) will meet to discuss a draft resolution on EU Guidelines on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and the mandate of the Special Envoy on the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. It’s a significant milestone, representing the culmination of a year-long reflection within the European institutions on how the EU could more effectively promote and protect FoRB in its foreign policy and external action.

It’s also a document to watch: the recommendations that Parliament chooses to put forward in this resolution are likely to play a key role in shaping the future direction of EU policy on FoRB.

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The European Parliament’s Watchdog on Freedom of Religion or Belief: Bark or Bite?

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.

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What Difference Does a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief Make?

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.

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A Welcome Surprise: The First EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief Outside the EU

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?

The will to mainstream freedom of religion or belief into the EU’s wider external agenda is a very welcome sign. Given the increasing number of FoRB violations taking place both inside and outside of Europe, there needs to be a push for an increased awareness of the need for FoRB and the way that it benefits communities. Pew’s most recent study on religious hostility worldwide found that 5.5 billion people worldwide live in countries with high or very high overall restrictions on religion. Several of these countries are recipients of EU development aid.

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