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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FoRB in China: The UK needs to speak out

Prime Minister Theresa May’s first official visit to China, which begins today, is billed as an opportunity to boost trade with an important ally. But it will also take place against the backdrop of the country’s violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.

In the last month, Christians have been detained, and unregistered churches shut down or destroyed ahead of the implementation of revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, which strengthen state control over religious activities in China.

Unregistered churches, sometimes called house churches, are independent churches which have not registered with the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement. The new regulations are due to come into force tomorrow, giving Mrs May a rare opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese government and publicly to reiterate the UK’s commitment to defending human rights.

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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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UK General Election: an opportunity to reiterate a commitment to human rights

Coming less than a year after the EU referendum, the UK’s snap General Election on Thursday will provide a fresh opportunity to ensure human rights are at the heart of government policies.

Amid competing priorities, it remains important that the new government pledges to uphold the UK’s commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in all aspects of foreign policy, including diplomacy, international aid and trade.

Freedom of Religion or Belief matters

According to the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the state of international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. Its new report states:

“the blatant assaults have become so frightening—attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated.”

Against this backdrop, it’s increasingly important that the government shows its commitment to protecting this right. It must speak with boldness in challenging FoRB violations and allocate adequate resources, in addition to using its diplomatic and political capital, to address them.

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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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