Dennis de jong
Originally, the United Nations had planned two international conventions, one on Racial Discrimination and one on Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief. Whereas the first convention was adopted by the General Assembly in 1965, the second never materialised. In this article, the author concludes that it is not realistic to expect the elaboration of such a convention in the near future. There are alternatives, however, such as the emergence of parliamentary networks on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief. Together with religious and belief organisations, such networks should at least contribute to a climate of decreased abuse of religion and belief for political purposes. In the long run, if mutual respect and understanding are promoted, the networks may even be able to provide the building blocks for a convention.
A UN Convention on Freedom of Religion or Belief?
In my thesis on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in the United Nations, I concluded that the time was not ripe yet for proposing the elaboration of a UN Convention on this subject. In particular, I stated: ‘The most convincing reason for not engaging in a new codification exercise is, in my opinion, that in view of the existing international political situation, it cannot be excluded that the end result may appear to be less satisfactory and thus may undermine even existing interpretations of Article 18 of the Covenant. Regrettable as this may be, I fear that this is a political reality’. Instead, I suggested the establishment of a Council representing major religions or beliefs. The Council would examine tensions between different religions or beliefs and would make relevant suggestions, both general and case-specific, to relevant UN-bodies. By discussing the various detailed elements of freedom of religion or belief, the Council could provide the basis for more detailed codification efforts and could even be asked to draw up an indicative catalogue of rights.
That was in 2000. Ever since, freedom of religion or belief has come under attack from various sides and international consensus on its scope may be even less firm today than it was sixteen years ago. We have witnessed the attempts of, in particular, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), to have the UN prohibit defamation of religion, thus undermining the right of religious and belief minorities to manifest their own religion or belief. At national level, countries have introduced or strengthened blasphemy laws, often vaguely worded and open to abuse. The number of States rejecting the separation of State and religion increased, implicitly or explicitly undermining the rights of those who do not adhere to the official religion.
Within the western world, measures were taken restricting certain manifestations of this freedom, based on an ever more wide-spread fear of ‘extremist’ views. Non-religious movements have become more vocal in their opposition against the, in their view, abuse of freedom of conscience. In general, intolerance, discrimination, and persecution based on religion or belief, has become worse in many parts of the world, as appears, inter alia, from the successive reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, currently Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt.
At the same time, inter-religious dialogue has been promoted both at global and at European level. In 2005, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) was established, following the initiative of Mr. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General and co-sponsored by the Governments of Spain and Turkey. The Alliance is primarily active on education, youth, migration, and media, but its general remit refers to interventions to defuse religious and cultural tensions by mobilising third parties that can act as forces of moderation and understanding such as religious leaders, grassroots organizations, youth leaders and women leaders. Not a UN-body, but certainly of interest to inter-religious dialogue is the Parliament of the World’s Religions. In addition, international NGOs, such as Religions for Peace, bring together religious leaders from all over the world, whilst also building religious councils at national and regional levels. All these initiatives are essential to show that religious and belief leaders can work together and that religion or belief can be a source of great inspiration.
Although the global initiatives for inter-religious dialogue are important in themselves, they never engaged in, let alone proposed, the codification of the most important elements of freedom of religion or belief. Against this background, I cannot but conclude that these days the elaboration of a convention on freedom or religion or belief is not realistic. Even more strongly than in 2000, I fear that such a codification exercise might well endanger the ‘acquis’ as laid down in Articles 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, and the Comments on art. 18 ICCPR of the Human Rights Committee.
Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Practice
The lack of a convention does not mean that there is a lack of standards. I already mentioned the UN standards. At regional level, additional standards were laid down, such as in the European Convention on Human Rights, and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In any case, there is enough to work from when focusing on violations of the freedom of religion or belief.
When I became member of the European Parliament (EP) in 2009, I was surprised by the fact that there did not seem to be a special working group on freedom of religion or belief. Whereas persecution based on religion or belief was on the rise in many parts of the world, and tensions between religious and belief communities were mounting, the European Parliament’s only reaction consisted of the adoption of resolutions, often focusing primarily on the persecution of Christians around the world.
By organising a lunch meeting with NGOs, as well as representatives from the ministries of Foreign Affairs of some Member States, I managed to bring together interested colleagues. Eventually, together with my colleague Peter van Dalen, we set up an EP Working Group, which in 2014 transformed into a more formal network, called ‘intergroup’. The EP recognizes only a limited number of such intergroups, so that this in itself is clear evidence of the increased interest in the protection of freedom of religion or belief.
Of our activities, one of the most important is the elaboration and subsequent presentation of an annual report summarizing violations of freedom of religion or belief in the world, and identifying countries of concern. Each report contains a number of specific recommendations for the EU, in particular the High Representative and her European External Action Services (EEAS), and the Member States.
Altogether, we have issued two annual reports thus far, and are working on the third. Each time, we try to improve our methodology and this time we have included a consultation round of NGOs on the draft text of the report. We shall also use informal contacts within the EEAS to have the information checked. This way, we hope that the report will develop into an instrument that will describe as objectively as possible the developments in the world relating to freedom of religion or belief.
In doing so, we work closely together with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and the UK parliamentary network. This way, we hope to build a movement of NGOs and parliamentarians who work together for the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief.
Can this be considered a good alternative for codification? No, insofar as we are dealing with two completely different levels here: when States negotiate a new convention and reach consensus, that in itself is of course a lot more important than when parliamentarians agree on certain principles. Still, the coalition of parliamentarians and NGOs is not unimportant either. The EP working group contributed to the guidelines for EU delegations and embassies of the Member States, which not only emphasize the main manifestations diplomats should focus on when they are promoting freedom of religion or belief, but also provide them with ideas for strengthening support for this freedom in the countries they are active in.
Moreover, a new initiative has been born, originating in the UK parliamentary network, to establish a truly global inter-parliamentary network. This may further stimulate the development of a common understanding of the main elements of the freedom of religion or belief. At the moment, most parliamentarians still represent western countries. It is imperative that the scope of a global inter-parliamentary network is extended to other countries, and if that happens, such a network might fulfil a similar role to what I had in mind for a Council representing major religions and beliefs. If such a network were to elaborate the building blocks for a new convention, the participating parliamentarians could usefully exert political pressure in that direction.
Obstacles: the Abuse of Religion or Belief
I have never been naïve in thinking that religions and beliefs bring only happiness: for those who profess a religion or belief, it is one of the fundamental elements in their conception of life (text taken from the 1981 UN Declaration). This means that many people will be inspired by their religion or belief, and strengthened in times of distress. It also means, however, that religion or belief is a potential instrument for gaining power over people. Governments can use it to exercise control, and terrorist organisations can use it to legitimise their criminal activities and to recruit new members.
There is a tension between, on the one hand, the need for a wide interpretation of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief as source of inspiration, and on the other hand, the need for more restrictive measures to protect public order (ordre public). This has been recognised in the ICCPR, which sets out that the right to have or to adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice is unlimited, the right to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject to restrictions in accordance with a number of explicitly mentioned limitation grounds.
In my thesis, I argued that the separation of religion and State is essential to make sure that the rights and freedoms of all are respected. Due to the increasing tensions between adherents of different religions or beliefs, there is a tendency to identify States more with religion than before. One does not have to go as far as Samuel Huntington in his book ‘Clash of Civilizations’, in which he describes religious and cultural differences becoming more prominent in the world. There are though certainly attempts to see the European Union as representing a judeo-christian tradition, whereas in the Islamic world, States identify ever more strongly with Islam. The same holds for the Hindu faith in India, and Buddhism in Burma. For certain terrorist groups, such as the so-called IS, their battles are phrased in religious terms, fighting the ‘infidels’.
The association of States with religion is a highly worrying tendency. The more States are linked to a specific religion or belief, the less they will be interested in a global instrument for the protection of adherents of all religions or beliefs. Such an instrument would mean that also within their own countries, these governments would have to guarantee the rights of religious and belief minorities, whereas in practice their policies are becoming more repressive than inclusive. Western governments are not excluded from this: decreasing tolerance for religious prescriptions, especially of Islam, results in ever more prohibitions, such as the prohibition on wearing burqas in public.
The more religions and beliefs are used for political purposes, and the more the tensions between religious and belief communities increase, the more difficult it becomes to reach international consensus on a wide interpretation of freedom of religion or belief. In this sense, there is a direct link between the principle of separation of religion and State and the scope of freedom of religion or belief: the less separation, the more limited the recognition of the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief will be.
Also in this sense, parliamentary networks can play a useful role. In the EP, many are interested in defending the rights of Christians. This holds far less for the rights of adherents of other religions and beliefs. If we can show, at the European, but also hopefully at the global level, that as parliamentarians we want to be inclusive, we may help in reducing the abuse of religions or beliefs for political purposes.
As intergroup, we are even-handed: the presentation of the annual reports of the International Humanistic and Ethical Union in the EP has taken place twice under the auspices of the intergroup. This is a clear demonstration of our recognition of the importance of protecting the rights of all theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs. Also in our annual reports, we treat every religion or belief alike.
As such, the intergroup hopes to contribute to a climate of mutual understanding and respect; we recognise and defend the inspirational value of religions and beliefs, and we do not accept the abuse of this characteristic by governments or terrorist organisations for their own purposes. Freedom of religion or belief is simply too precious to be abused.
Dennis de Jong
Member of the European Parliament, representing the Dutch Socialist Party, since 2009.
He was Special Advisor on Human Rights and Good Governance in the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs and in that capacity, he served, inter alia, as focal point for religion and belief, including freedom of religion or belief.
In 2000, he obtained his Ph.D. at Maastricht University on the basis of his thesis on freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief in the United Nations (1946-1992).
Noten The Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion or Belief in the United Nations (1946-1992), Intersentia, 2000 (ISBN 90-5095-137-6), in particular, pages 735/736.
 See: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomReligion/Pages/FreedomReligionIndex.aspx.
 See: http://www.unaoc.org/
 See: https://www.parliamentofreligions.org/
 See: http://www.religionsforpeace.org/?lang=en
 General Comment Nr. 22 (available throughhttp://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CCPR/Pages/CCPRIndex.aspx)
 Information on the intergroup, including its reports, can be found on: http://www.religiousfreedom.eu/
 See: http://ippforb.com/