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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The UN at 70: Will Freedom of Religion or Belief Continue to be Sidelined?

In October 2015, the United Nations – the most significant global human rights project serving seven billion people in 193 member states – turned seventy.

There is no doubt that the last 70 years have witnessed significant positive development with regards to the legal framework protecting freedom of religion or belief, however, when it comes to the actual realisation of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) across the world, the situation on the ground in many countries remains challenging.

FoRB in International Law

Although religious freedom does not have its own convention, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a core human rights treaty with 169 state parties and ratified by 169 states, as well as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provide strong, legal protection of FoRB These legal protections also cover those with non-religious beliefs. Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has reported a number of violations of freedom of religion or belief to the UN Human Rights Council and provided a wealth of interpretative information and normative analysis of FoRB.

In practice: the global realisation of FoRB

However, if you base the assessment of the success of the UN on the actual realisation of religious freedom across the world, the performance of the UN remains discouraging.  According to PEW Research Centre, about 5.5 billion people (77% of the world’s population) were living in countries with high or very high overall levels of restrictions on religion in 2013. CSW has reported a wide variety of FoRB violations from 26 countries including Eritrea, Sudan, Burma, China, Pakistan, Cuba, Iran and Egypt. Violations range from violence, killings, imprisonment and sexual violence to discrimination in employment or education and restrictions on the construction of places of worship. Given this background, it is obvious that the implementation of FoRB for all faiths and none remains on a rocky road.

Continue reading “The UN at 70: Will Freedom of Religion or Belief Continue to be Sidelined?”