Remarks by Bani Dugal

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1 The Civil Society and the Education on Human Rights as a Tool for Promoting Religious Tolerance UNGA Ministerial Segment Side Event, 27 September 2012 Crisis areas, current and future challenges to the international community regarding Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Protection of Religious Minorities 1. Framing: The importance of this right Remarks by Bani Dugal The right to freedom of religion, conscience or belief, reaches to very core of what it means to be human. At the heart of human existence is the impulse to search for truth and to seek meaning to know who we are and why we were created -- what we believe defines who we are. Recognizing this, the framers of the UDHR enshrined this right in the Declaration. When member states accept membership in the UN, they do so by committing to uphold the rights and principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite its centrality to human well-being and development, freedom of religion or belief is often ignored, overlooked, or relegated to a second-tier right by the international community and human rights bodies. The right to freedom of religion or belief (Article 18 of the UDHR) 1 is accorded the special status of a non-derogable right. It is protected unconditionally and can at no time be subject to government regulation. There is no relativism in the rights enshrined in the UDHR. They represent the moral heritage of all of humanity. The idea that all cultural practices and beliefs are equally valid has gained prominence in recent times and has some value. But when cultural relativism is elevated as the only lens through which we view cultures. It doesn t permit addressing the injustices that are often carried out in the name of tradition, culture and religion. Why, are we still fighting for this right 60 some years after the unanimous adoption of UDHR and subsequent covenants and commitments to protecting the freedom of conscience and belief? Approximately 70% of the world s people are currently living in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which falls on religious minorities and women Minority rights These rights (of FORB) which are enshrined in the UDHR are often tested in relation to Minority Rights and women in particular. Minority rights can serve to reinforce the freedom of religion or belief, when appropriately framed. They highlight the fact that freedom of religion or belief includes 1 Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and that this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. 2 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report, August

2 freedom to manifest that religion in community with others, in public as well as in private. The roots of minority rights can, in fact, be found in the protection of religious minorities and pre-date the modern human rights framework. Initially the UN rejected the idea of minority rights. The thinking was that universal rights would be the panacea for all and that the call for equality eliminated the necessity of singling out particular categories of rights holders. After a number of decades the realization dawned that equal treatment could actually result in discrimination for those who started lower down the pecking order. Superficial equality can fail to cure discrimination against those that had previously been unequal it merely conceals that inequality with the gloss of equal treatment. Particularly so, because religious minorities face discrimination and persecution; their case is addressed under the freedom of religion or belief umbrella in international human rights and not under minority rights. 3. Current and Future Challenges (a) Widening gap between commitments and implementation Despite repeated commitments on the part of governments to uphold the right to freely adopt and hold beliefs of one s choosing -- we are seeing today a widening gap between the commitments of the international community and the implementation of this right. This is particularly the case in relation to religious minorities, who may face additional discrimination in relation to a whole host of human rights such as their equality before the law, their right to education, their right to earn or livelihood and their participation in cultural life. According to a recent study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: for over 2 billion people, government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion are increasing. (b) State interference and suppression of the rights of religious minorities (c) Failure on the part of States to foster harmonious relations and the State not realizing the benefits of the diversity and contributions its religious minorities make to society. (d) Challenge to the Right to change religion/convert Though the right to change one s religion or belief is protected unconditionally, we have seen a gradual softening of the language used to define this right and even repeated attempts to weaken this right. States have failed to uphold the clear standard set by the UDHR 5. In its General Comment No. 22, the Human Rights Committee has clearly stated that the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief includes the 5 Even the General Assembly's 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion and Belief does not explicitly affirm the right to change one's religion or belief. 2

3 freedom to choose a religion or belief, and to replace one s current religion or belief with another, and to retain one s religion or belief. The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief focuses on the right to convert in his August 2012 interim report in an effort to clarify the rights of converts and o f those trying non-coercively to persuade others as inextricable dimensions of freedom of religion or belief. The Special Rapporteur recommends that States repeal vague provisions against apostasy and blasphemy and should reform their legislation in line with Article 18 (3) of the ICCPR. (e) Right to manifest and teach religion or beliefs Among the activities encompassed by the freedom of religion or belief, the freedom to manifest and teach beliefs has been particularly contentious. While the UDHR calls for the unconditional protection of the 'internal' right to hold particular beliefs, the manifestation of those beliefs (the external right) has frequently been subject to limitations. Governments are granted the latitude to restrict this right for the purposes of 'meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society'. The concepts of public morality, order and welfare are open to broad interpretation and, all too often, governments have used them as a vehicle to suppress minority populations. The Human Rights Committee has clarified that limitations on the grounds of morality must be understood in the light of the universality of human rights and the principle of non-discrimination. Freedom of religion or belief can only assume its full meaning when people are exposed to different ideas and beliefs makes ones convictions stronger etc. However, we can also argue that marginalizing religious minorities frequently results in exclusion and division, which, can lead to actions which disrupt the public order. No society is perfect, but the freedoms enjoyed in pluralistic societies in which diversity of religion and belief is protected, coupled with the rule of law, provide a much more stable foundation for peaceful relations between members of different religions and for positive dynamics in society at large. (f) Rule of law There are extreme voices in every community and even with the protection of the State, problems will arise. But when the rule of law is well established, and there are structures in place to promote a peaceful exchange of views, a set of conditions is created in which challenges can be resolved. While they are far from perfect, I can share the examples of India and the US which provide an example of pluralistic societies in which these freedoms are protected by the State however, the State could be doing more to protect and promote harmonious relations between the different groups. Conversely, when governments actively suppress or repress these freedoms they marginalize religious communities, exacerbate misunderstandings and the 3

4 propagation of harmful and hateful stereotypes. The community has no way to learn the truth, to know, to express itself. It has been well established that the repression of freedom of religion or belief leads to political and social instability, unrest, at times, culminating in violent clashes and loss of life. A case in point would be the situation of the Bahá'í community in the Islamic Republic of Iran which continues to deteriorate dramatically. Today the rights of tens of thousands of Baha'is are violated solely because of their religious beliefs. (More than 100 Baha'is are in prison. Several hundred more are awaiting the outcome of the legal proceedings against them. The seven former leaders of the community are serving the longest sentences currently imposed on prisoners of conscience in Iran: 20 years each.) The official nature of the persecution came to light in 1993 when the former UN Special Representative on Iran, brought to light an Iranian government memorandum that enunciates policy on the Bahá'í question" and explicitly instructs government agencies to ensure that the "progress and development" of the Bahá'í community "shall be blocked." (g) Women s rights to freedom of religion or belief Women s rights have an important place in UN human rights norms. However, Women s freedom of religion has been largely ignored by the international and the human rights community. In the past 56 sessions of the CSW, attention has never been given to women holding particular religions or beliefs; this has never been a theme or a sub-theme. There is also no mention of religion or belief in CEDAW. In her various reports to the Human Rights Commission, the former Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, highlighted that many women suffer from aggravated discrimination, due to their religious, ethnic identities. Female members of minority religions also tend to be prone to become victims of rape and violence stirred up by organized groups. 8 Women s right to convert as well as the right to retain their religion must be protected. When she marries, she must be able to choose whether or not to change her religion (e.g. to that of her husband) or to retain her religion. In a similar manner, it must not be assumed that her children will automatically assume the religion of the father. It is the responsibility of the State to foster conditions and put in place legal structures to support this right. 4. Concluding thoughts The promotion of religious freedom is not a concern for the faithful alone. The protection of this right is not only a legal necessity. It is part of a much larger undertaking creating a society that allows human potential to emerge and flourish. The manner in which a State treats its minorities could be a standard by which to measure the status of human rights in that country. By promoting the freedom of religion or belief, we create more open societies, societies that have access to knowledge about different systems of belief, who are 8 Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. A/64/ July

5 more tolerant of diversity and understand such diversity as a source of strength, rather than a weakness or a threat. These are more resilient societies. At the heart of this issue must be an understanding of the relationship between all members of the human family that the social body, much like the cells of the human body, represents an organic whole. And that in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and of society as a whole are inextricably linked. To restrict freedom of religion or belief to one group of individuals is to deny the entire human family the spiritual, social and intellectual benefits that derive from this freedom. 5

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