About the APPG on International Religious Freedom
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on International Religious Freedom was established in July 2012 with the following purpose: “To raise awareness and profile of international religious freedom as a human right amongst parliamentarians, media, government and the general public in the UK; and to increase effectiveness and awareness of the UK’s contribution to international institutions charged with enforcing this human right.”
THE REPORT - EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Centrality of Article 18
Article 18 UDHR remains the benchmark against which the enjoyment of the freedom of religion or belief should be measured. Although there is also a considerable range of normative and institutional activity focussing on freedom of religion or belief, as well as unilateral and multilateral state initiatives which parallel or supplement this activity, the primary contention of this report is that when considered against the standard set by Article 18, freedom of religion or belief is not currently being protected internationally as it ought.
Unlike many other human rights, there is as yet no focussed United Nations (UN) Convention directly addressing the subject of freedom of religion or belief. In consequence, freedom of religion or belief has for many years been something of a “residual” right, only protected to the extent that it does not stand in the way of achieving some other goal or ambition. While the UN Vienna Declaration of 1993 asserts that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and inter-related, in practice within the family of human rights this freedom remains on the margins. It is in this respect an orphaned right, and the purpose of this report is to commence a process of reuniting this right with its family.
What Article 18 promises
Article 18 states that freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right which may not be derogated from, even in times of public emergency. It protects traditional, non-traditional and new religious beliefs and practices, as well as numerous beliefs not associated with divine or transcendent powers, or not of a religious nature. Everyone has the freedom to manifest their religion or belief, either alone or together with others, publicly or privately. Nobody is to be subject to coercion that would impair the individual’s freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of their choice, nor is discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief permissible.
However, as this report explains, almost 75% of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of government restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, or where they face high-level hostility due to their religious affiliations, and this figure is rising. Across the globe there is widespread denial of freedom of worship, and of freedom to teach, promote and publicly express one’s religion or belief.
This report instances examples of state intimidation, discrimination and violence towards people on account of their religion or belief, as well as situations where states do not offer adequate protection from persecution by non-state actors. This is not limited to any one region, or any one form of religion. Through evidence submissions and other means, the group is aware of a deeply troubling scale of violation of freedom of religion or belief worldwide. This catalogue of abuse covers Shia Muslims in Bahrain, Baha’is and Zoroastrians in Iran, Christians across large swathes of the Middle East, Sufi muslims from the Sunni tradition in Somalia, atheists in Indonesia, Falun Gong practitioners in China, Buddhists in Tibet, Jewish people in Europe and Hindus in Pakistan — truly a global concern that affects the full range of religious and non-religious belief.
Defamation of religions
While the UN has declared that everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief, it has done relatively little to make this a reality. Much of the work at the UN is focussed on a very different question, the so-called “defamation of religions” debate, which focuses on protecting religions — not believers — from criticism, and becomes a means of restricting rights and freedoms, rather than safeguarding them. The firm position of this report is that the focus of the UN ought to be less on when it might be appropriate to restrain rights in the name of religion, and more on encouraging and supporting international action to champion the freedom of religion or belief for all. At the same time as pursuing this goal, it is necessary to identify effective UK policy and action, and this report makes a number of recommendations in this regard.
Response of the FCO
In the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) report Human Rights and Democracy 2012, freedom of religion or belief is described as “one of the Government’s key human rights priorities”, and it outlines a strategy for promoting this freedom. The recognition that it is not only the promotion but also the protection of freedom of religion or belief that is a key priority is to be greatly welcomed — but what is now needed is further effective action. This report seeks to identify a number of practical strategies that can be adopted.
This report goes on to outline five overarching prerequisites for the construction and implementation of any successful policy on international freedom of religion or belief:
- Clear commitment from across the domestic political spectrum, based on the recognition of the central significance of the freedom of religion or belief as an essential freedom for all
- Broad-based consultation across the spectrum of religion and belief
- International action that is reflective of, and grounded in, a full respect for freedom of religion and belief in domestic policy
- International action that is focused on freedom for all people, irrespective of the nature of their religion or belief
- Grounding for all action in freedom of religion or belief as set out in the UDHR Article 18, which includes freedom for everyone to adhere to a religion or belief of their choice, including the right not to have, or to be associated with, a religion or belief, the right to change religion or belief and the right to manifest religion or belief in accordance with the Universal Declaration and as subsequently developed under international law, in a manner that is respectful of the human rights of other individuals
Against that background, this report makes a number of detailed recommendations, but has identified the following as a matter of priority:
We ask that the British Government consider the appointment of an Ambassadorial-level focal point on freedom of religion or belief, to spearhead the implementation of mainstreaming, country and thematic work within the FCO and across relevant departments, and to assist the FCO in projection and implementation of its strategies.
We call on the British Government to become a state party to the First Optional Protocol of the CPPR. This would allow individuals in the UK to raise questions about potential violations of their rights directly with the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), and in addition show leadership to encourage other states to follow suit.
We ask the Foreign Secretary to establish a sub-group of the Human Rights Advisory Group to focus on freedom of religion and belief.
We call on the FCO to undertake a baseline evaluation of the extent, quality and impact of mainstreaming issues concerning freedom of religion or belief into the work of the office, and undertake further evaluations at fixed intervals to determine progress.
We call on the Department for International Development (DfID) to ensure that where aid is provided or contracts are awarded overseas, it is channelled to civil-society organisations and government programmes that can demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of freedom of religion or belief, and can show how their work will have a positive rather than negative impact in this area.
We ask the FCO to consider revising the Human Rights and Democracy Programme (HRDP) to enable support of longer-term projects than the one-year cycle currently permits.
We ask the British Government to make representations to the UN to ensure that there is sufficient funding to support a paid, full-time Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and resource their office.
We call on DfID to identify freedom of religion or belief as a new priority in its work.
We ask the British Government to make representations to the UN nations to ensure that the Rabat Plan of Action is woven into continued engagement with HRC Resolution 16/18 and the Istanbul Process, making sure that the international focus remains the duties of states to protect the freedom of religion or belief of those subject to its jurisdiction, rather than deviating from the rights laid down in Article 18 to address issues around “incitement to religious hatred”.
We urge the FCO to convene an expert group to scope the issues involved in initiating a process to consider a convention on freedom of religion or belief at the international level.
To read the full report , click here.