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

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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Diplomacy and Determination: Five Years of the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief

June 2018 marks five years since the European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs Council adopted Guidelines on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). This anniversary provides an opportune moment to reflect on how the Guidelines are being used and whether they are fulfilling their intended function.

It is encouraging that FoRB has risen so significantly on the EU’s foreign policy agenda since 2013, but there remains substantial room for improvement. In particular, to ensure better implementation of the guidelines emphasis needs to be placed on increasing EU efforts to train officials on FoRB and on monitoring violations in countries worldwide.

Diplomacy works well until it doesn’t

The EU FoRB Guidelines were the result of a complex drafting process involving broad consultation with civil society specialising in this field of human rights including CSW and negotiated compromises between EU member states. They commit the EU to mainstreaming FoRB in its external human rights policy and identify practical steps EU institutions and member states should take to prevent and address FoRB violations in a “timely, consistent and coherent manner.” The text strongly affirms that the EU is “determined” to promote FoRB as a core part of the indivisible human rights landscape and free from alignment with any particular religious or non-religious agenda.

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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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