Over the years, legal standards securing the rights to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) for all have developed into a solid normative core. International provisions are notably anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. In addition, a growing literature of studies and legal commentary – as well as UN reports, resolutions and initiatives—consistently reaffirm states’ obligations. The mandate of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which I have the privilege of currently holding, is tasked to address states’ commitments and to ensure that the right to FoRB is enjoyed by all.
And yet, despite this robust normative core, states continue to lag behind in fulfilling their obligations. In other words, the implementation gap continues to grow. How is it possible to explain states’ lack of compliance faced with the array of human rights instruments and tools? A range of reasons could help us shed some light to the phenomenon.
For starters, misconceptions around what constitutes the right to FoRB under international law still permeate the discussion. It is crucial to continue to clarify what FoRB is—and what it isn’t. To respond to just one common misperception: the right to FoRB is not a “religious right”, but it includes the right for all individuals, including humanists and non-believers, to peacefully express and manifest their most profound thoughts, conscience and religion, regardless of what they think. This right lies at the essence of what it means to be a human being.
Secondly, religious intolerance and hateful discourse have risen across the globe. Trends have been accompanied by a rise in reports of incitement to discrimination or violence. In parts of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in South Asia, hate is linked to violence and atrocities committed in the name of religion. Elsewhere, in western Europe and the United States, the rise of populism has led to a reconsideration of the value of respect for and the appreciation of diversity and pluralism. These phenomena have produced an overall negative impact on the ability of religious groups (minorities and non-believers included) to manifest their beliefs. Today, many religious groups face threats to their freedom, safety and security – both by state and non-state actors and face targeted harassment, intimidation or discrimination.
For the next three years, my work will focus on how states can better implement their obligations to secure FoRB for all. All of society’s stakeholders need to play a role, including governments, parliamentarians, national human rights institutions, educational institutions, media and cultural outlets, human rights groups, faith-based organizations as well as citizens’ initiatives.
I will use the increasing attention given to FoRB in international relations as an opportunity to clarify prevailing misconceptions and to promote action-oriented initiatives that can produce concrete results. In addition to focusing on laws, courts and other conventional aspects of compliance, it will be useful to take stock of policies, programmes and activities, to evaluate how they translate human rights commitments into practice. I would also like to build on existing synergies within the United Nations framework by working with partners across the wider United Nations human rights system to mainstream the promotion of the right to FoRB in its work.
Today, the polarized nature of debates surrounding FoRB make it ever more vital to support cross-boundary and interdisciplinary efforts to secure this right. In a world where religious or belief groups may retreat to defend the turf of their specific rights, there is a need to inject greater global solidarity, to uphold the idea that FoRB is universal. A “tribalist” approach only goes so far—but if compassion and empathy is renewed across all faiths and beliefs, then society a whole will benefit with stronger rights to FoRB for all. A key function of religions and beliefs is to provide solace and solidarity-- religious and belief communities can provide a robust foundation for the realization of the rights of all through cross-boundary mobilization for the common good.
Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief