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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL CONCLUDES DIALOGUE ON FOREIGN DEBT AND STARTS DIALOGUE ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF

President of the Council Announces Measures in Response to COVID-19
2 March 2020

The Human Rights Council this afternoon concluded its interactive dialogue with Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt on the full enjoyment of all human rights, and started its interactive dialogue with Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Opening the meeting, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President of the Human Rights Council, invited members to hold a minute of silence to honour the recently deceased former Special Rapporteur, Idriss Jazairy, a key figure of the Human Rights Council and the Geneva international community.

In addition, due to the global COVID-19 situation, Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger announced that following the recommendations of the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, Tatiana Valovaya, the Bureau of the Human Rights Council had decided to cancel all side events and would encourage representatives and those Special Procedure mandate holders who were not already in Geneva to refrain from travelling to Geneva and to participate in the session via videoconference.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt on the full enjoyment of all human rights. A summary of the presentation of his report in the previous meeting can be read here.

Bolivia and Mongolia took the floor as concerned countries.

In the discussion, speakers shared the Independent Expert’s concern about the adverse effects of private debt on individuals and households, particularly its impact on the enjoyment of human rights of the most vulnerable members of society. The report had mapped negative implications for human rights of micro-credit and abusive collection practices, including criminalization of debtors, consumer debt, and debt bondage. The criminalization of debtors was a grave issue from the perspective of human rights. There was a strong growth of private debt internationally, mostly households which were paying for housing allowance and education, and it was causing effects on all sectors of society.

Speaking in the interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert of foreign debt and human rights were: Cuba, Iraq, South Africa, India, Namibia, Ecuador, Sudan, Egypt, Russian Federation, Venezuela, Algeria, Indonesia, Lebanon, China, Côte d’Ivoire and Jamaica.

Also taking the floor were the following civil society organizations: International Association of Democratic Lawyers, Action Canada for Population and Development, Make Mothers Matter, Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme, World Barua Organization, China Society for Human Rights Studies, Global Welfare Association, Mother of Hope Cameroon Common Initiative Group, Chinese Association for International Understanding, and Associacion Cubana de las Naciones Unidas.

Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief, then presented his reports, noting that his thematic report examined the overlap between freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination and gender equality. In the past, much attention had been devoted to the issue of gender specific human rights abuses in relationship to exercise of religious or other beliefs. This report was building on that work and it involved a series of civil society led consultations hosted in countries across five regions, where faith-based and secular human rights defenders discussed increasing challenges to protect freedom of religion or belief, and combat gender-based violence and discrimination. His country reports presented findings from visits to the Netherlands and Sri Lanka.

The Netherlands and Sri Lanka spoke as concerned countries. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka also took the floor in video messages.

In the discussion on freedom of religion or belief, some speakers welcomed the intersectionality of the report and that it was bringing together gender equality and freedom of religion or belief, which was considered as particularly important at the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action. Unfortunately, many women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons continued to experience discriminatory practices in every region of the world, sometimes in the name of religion. Other speakers noted that sensitive reports such as the one by the Special Rapporteur needed more time to be properly analysed, adding that there were inconsistences and inaccuracies in the report which had no grounds in international human rights law, whereas some parts were outside of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, according to the Council’s resolution 37/6. Moreover, the report focused on pushing a vision of human society and a particular set of values which were not shared by all and that did not correspond to a reality prescribed by many cultures. The Special Rapporteur remained silent about numerous threats which religious minorities were facing under populist leaders, although that theme was in the purview of his mandate.

Speaking in the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief were: European Union, Norway (on behalf of Nordic and Baltic countries), Qatar (on behalf of group of the Arab Group), Argentina (on behalf of a group of countries), UN Women, Canada, Sovereign Order of Malta, Holy See, Brazil, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, France, Hungary, Serbia, Italy, India, Ecuador, Sierra Leone, Netherlands, Cuba, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Sudan, Denmark, Croatia, Ireland, Montenegro, Egypt, Myanmar, Greece, Russian Federation, Iran, Venezuela, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Albania, Malta, Lebanon, Senegal, China, Ukraine, Nepal, Belgium, Poland, United Kingdom, Slovakia, Guyana, Solomon Islands, Iraq, Mexico, Armenia, Cameroon, Barbados, Haiti, Angola and Eritrea.

The World Jewish Congress also took the floor.

Brazil and Philippines spoke in right of reply.

The meetings of the forty-third regular session of the Human Rights Council can be followed on the webcast of UN Web TV

The Council will next meet on Tuesday, 3 March, at 10 a.m. to conclude its separate interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities and with the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief. It will then hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, to be followed by an interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism.

Announcement by the President of the Council

ELISABETH TICHY-FISSLBERGER, President of the Human Rights Council, announced the passing of the former Special Rapporteur, Idriss Jazairy, a key figure of the Human Rights Council and the Geneva international community. She extended her most sincere condolence to Mr. Jazairy’s family and to the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria, and invited members of the Council to join her in a minute of silence in his memory.

The President then informed that she had received an urgent letter from the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, Tatiana Valovaya, concerning the global COVID-19 situation and its implications for the current session of the Human Rights Council. In her letter, the Director-General had made reference to the measures recommended by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women and had suggested that the Bureau of the Human Rights Council adopt a similar approach.

The Director-General specified that the recommended measures would entail cancelling all side events and encouraging representatives to refrain from travelling to Geneva for the rest of the session. Ms. Valovaya had also suggested that those Special Procedure mandate holders who were not already in Geneva could be encouraged to participate in the session via video-conferencing. Due to the current situation, Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger called the Bureau of the Human Rights Council for an urgent meeting. The Bureau had discussed the letter of the Director-General and in the light of the urgency of the current situation, had decided to follow her recommendations. Those were circumstances that were beyond anyone’s control, but they forced the Bureau to react and take measures of precaution.

The President of the Council recalled that the Swiss authorities had encouraged all organisers of events which went beyond 1,000 people to cancel them and the calculation was that quite a high number of side events would attract quite a high number of people to this part of the Palais.

Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights

Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, presented his reports in the previous meeting and a summary of his presentation can be seen here.

Statements by Concerned Countries

Bolivia, speaking as a concerned country, appreciated the report’s comments about the country’s political, economic and social model, which had been qualified as positive. However, analysis contained in the report on the state of rule of law did not reflect the situation on the ground because the Independent Expert had not taken into account the hundreds of complaints of human rights violations against the Government of then President Evo Morales. Likewise, the report made piecemeal reference to the events in October and November 2019 whereas the visit by the Independent Expert had taken place in May 2019. The Bolivian delegation thus called on the Council to base such delicate reports on objective investigations carried out in the field and not only on subjective assessments made at a distance. Furthermore, the delegation reiterated the commitment of the President of the Government, Jeanine Aòez, to the promotion and protection of human rights. In that respect, Bolivia would create a truth commission in order to gather information on violations of human rights that might have taken place in the past 14 years.

Mongolia, speaking as a concerned country, clarified that the revised version of the General Law on Taxation had come into effect on 1 January 2020 and had included the norms of the European Economic Cooperation Development Organization, namely of its initiative for preventing tax evasion and protecting against it. Secondly, the amendments introduced to the Law on the Central Bank and the Banking Law in 2018 had improved the regulation of the relationship between banks and related parties, and it had modified the controls over clients and money sources. As for economic diversification and industrial development, the Mongolian delegation noted that micro, small and medium-sized enterprises played a central role in the country’s agriculture, wholesale trade and manufacturing, and accounted for 25 per cent of the GDP and 52 per cent of the workforce. As of 2020, 30 per cent of mining royalty fees would be directed to local budgets, becoming an important source of development for local economies and manufacturing. Finally, the Government was planning to complete its first ever National Plan for Business and Human Rights in 2021.

Discussion

Delegations shared the concern of the Independent Expert on the adverse effects of private debt on individuals and households, particularly its impact on the enjoyment of human rights of the most vulnerable persons in society. The rise of private debt was linked to increasing inequalities around the world. The report had mapped negative implications for human rights of micro-credit and abusive collection practices, including criminalization of debtors, consumer debt and debt bondage. Individuals should not enter into debt to be able to cover basic services. The criminalization of debtors was a grave issue for human rights. There was a strong growth of private debt internationally which was affecting all sectors of society. It caused particular hardships for households of single mothers. Speakers agreed that human rights assessments had to be carried out when undergoing robust economic reforms. Transnational corporations and banks with their irresponsible policies were also responsible for high levels of private debt. Difficult conditions attached to foreign debt limited operational space for the receiving governments to implement crucial welfare projects for their citizens. The core principle of inclusive development for all had to be upheld. States outlined the steps they had undertaken concerning financial inclusion and adoption of legislation to provide relief to over-indebted citizens who had no other means of extracting themselves from over-indebtedness. The Expert was asked how the Council could cooperate with international financial institutions on human rights issues. The Expert was also asked to provide the Council with some best practices on the subject.

Foreign debt, both public and private, compromised the achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals, speakers said. Private debt was a double-edged sword. It could be both a catalyst for economic development and, if mishandled, could pose a challenge towards human rights. Financial literacy was a key factor in alleviating financial and human rights risks associated with private debt. Concerning indebtedness of migrants, speakers noted the difference between how it affected refugees and migrants. The recommendation to assist countries in monitoring and regulating lending activities was welcomed. It was affirmed that national initiatives against economic inequality in order to ensure basic human rights ought to be complemented by global and international efforts towards more democratic and equal international relations. Historical and present iniquitous relationships between States of the global south and the global north played a crucial role in the effects of foreign debt on individual and household debt. Institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had imposed policies that forced States to adopt free-market economic models that reduced labour protections, de-regulated domestic markets and cut back on essential services. Such policies had a direct bearing on countries’ ability to meet their human rights obligations, particularly on the African continent and in other developing countries. International financial institutions also had to implement recommendations from the report and assist the countries with high foreign debt. A resolution on renewing the mandate of the Independent Expert would be proposed during this Council’s session.

Concluding Remarks by the Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights

JUAN PABLO BOHOSLAVSKY, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, in response to the comments made by the Bolivian delegation, noted that the description of events in Bolivia which had occurred at the end of 2019 strictly reflected what had been recorded by the Ombudsman and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. The scale and seriousness of the recorded human rights violations had been such that their omission would simply render the report incomplete. Democracy and the rule of law were the pillars of growth and sustainable development, the Independent Expert underlined. The progress made over the past decade in the sphere of economic, social and cultural rights had been comprehensive. He was involving States in the exchange of best practices. In his last address to the Council, Mr. Bohoslavsky thanked all the States and non-governmental organizations that had involved themselves in the discussion about finance and human rights in the past several years.

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (A/HRC/43/48). The advance unedited version can be found at A/HRC/43/48

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief – Visit to the Netherlands (A/HRC/43/48/Add.1).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief – Visit to Sri Lanka (A/HRC/43/48/Add.2). The advance unedited version can be found at A/HRC/43/48/Add.2

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Presentation of Reports by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief, noted that his thematic report examined the overlap between freedom of religion or belief, non-discrimination and gender equality. He also presented reports on the findings of his visits to the Netherlands and Sri Lanka. The thematic report highlighted the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, and five years since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, which included a pledge to achieve gender equality and to leave no one behind. In the past, much attention had been devoted to the issue of gender specific human rights abuses in relationship to exercise of religious or other beliefs. This report was building on that work and it involved a series of civil society led consultations hosted in countries across five regions, where faith-based and secular human rights defenders discussed increasing challenges to protect freedom of religion or belief, and combat gender-based violence and discrimination. The Special Rapporteur said he had identified States seeking to confront these challenges. Those States had adopted a variety of approaches to uphold their obligation to ensure the freedom to manifest religion or belief, while simultaneously protecting the rights to equality and non-discrimination of all people. Some States had taken important measures aimed at creating conditions in which all members of society were able to exercise their rights on an equal footing. Other States had made less effort, instead aligning official laws and policies with religious actors. The Special Rapporteur also identified situations in which States had restricted gender-discriminatory practices.

Concerning his country visits, the Special Rapporteur said that the Netherlands possessed a legislative and policy framework for the exercise of freedom of religion or belief and it was a political reality. However, there were challenges to guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief, including growing intolerance towards Muslim and Jewish communities. Nonetheless, the Government was cognizant of those challenges and reflective about many concerns outlined in the report. The Government’s investment in programmes for monitoring and responding to developments that undermined equal enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief had been extensive.

As for his visit to Sri Lanka last year, the Special Rapporteur said there had been an egregious terrorist attack targeting the Christian community in Easter. The Government’s work in strengthening independent institutions and supporting work at the grassroots level by religious leaders to advance religious harmony was encouraging. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was congratulated for obtaining A status for its compliance with the Paris Principles. Lack of closure on a number of issues arising from the lengthy ethnic conflict was concerning. The root causes of religious intolerance and tensions in Sri Lanka were analyzed and there was an urgent need to address the politicization of ethnic and religious identity, religious extremism, including those instigated by nationalist sentiments, and hate speech. The Government had to tackle the culture of impunity and uphold the rule of law and accountability.

Statements by Concerned Countries

Netherlands, speaking as a concerned country, noted that the right to freedom of religion or belief had been a national priority for years. The Netherlands strongly supported the Special Rapporteur in his monitoring of country situations. The Netherlands had a robust legal framework that allowed all its citizens to enjoy the right to freedom of religion or belief, and it had an institutional history of cooperating with different faith groups in response to various issues. The Netherlands had in place training courses for Government officials. It had developed guidelines for anti-discrimination at the local level, and a comprehensive anti-discrimination programme. Violence in any form against persons, groups or communities was unacceptable. The Netherlands condemned any incitement to hatred on the basis of religion or belief. The maximum penalty for the incitement of such hatred had increased as of 1 January 2020. At the same time, more resilience had to be built so that people of different communities, especially Jewish and Muslim communities, could freely exercise their rights. The trust in public institutions was indispensable for the enjoyment of human rights. Underreporting of discrimination also remained a problem in the Netherlands, which was why it was undertaking more training and capacity-building for the police and local authorities.

Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, in a video message, underlined the conclusion of the Special Rapporteur that the general conditions for the right to freedom of religion or belief in the Netherlands was well in conformity with international human rights law. In addition to the report, the Institute highlighted that the Human Rights Council should encourage the Dutch Government to strengthen institutional structures for dialogue with religious communities at all levels. The Institute further observed a growing intolerance towards the clothing of religious communities, especially Jewish and Muslim, which led to persons hiding their religious symbols. As for the wearing of religious clothing, there was rightfully a concern about the growing number of companies that required their employees not to wear religious clothing, particularly when dealing with customers. The Dutch Government should actively inform employers of the problematic nature of such requests.

Sri Lanka, speaking as a concerned country, reminded that it had received the Special Rapporteur in August 2019, barely four months after the country had suffered a serious of horrendous terrorist attacks by certain local groups inspired by ISIS. The facilitation of the visit at a time of numerous national challenges was a manifestation of the Government’s policy of open and constructive dialogue with the United Nations human rights mechanisms. Having suffered from the scourge of separatist terrorism for nearly three decades, Sri Lanka had embarked on the path of reconciliation and national healing over the past decade. Unfortunately, the Special Rapporteur’s report had to a large extent sought to judge the space for freedom of religion in Sri Lanka through the few months that followed the Easter Sunday attacks. The authorities had taken all possible measures to prevent any retributive acts of civil unrest, to maintain law and order, and to ensure the safety and security of all people, particularly of the Muslim community. The report had failed to adequately address positive measures taken to foster religious harmony, such as addressing extremist elements on all sides.

Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, in a video statement, said the Commission shared many of the Special Rapporteur’s views and concerns. There was a politicization of religion in Sri Lanka and political campaigning based on religious exclusivity and divisions. This had to be prohibited under the election law. Children were growing up in segregated schools. The Commission proposed an integrated school system that would allow children to grow up in a manner that would celebrate diversity. School curricula had to be designed in a way that promoted pluralism. The prohibition of laws banning hate speech should be strictly enforced.

Discussion

Some speakers welcomed the intersectionality of the report and that it was bringing together gender equality and freedom of religion or belief, which was considered as particularly important at the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action. Unfortunately many women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons continued to experience discriminatory practices in every region of the world, sometimes in the name of religion or within their religious community. The importance of exercising freedom of religion or belief for all was underscored and the Special Rapporteur had shed light on the clash between some religious interpretations and the right to equal treatment based on gender. Other delegations drew the attention of the Council that sensitive reports such as this one needed more time to be properly analysed and regretted that this report was submitted at the last minute. There were inconsistences and inaccuracies in the report which had no ground in the international human rights law, and some parts were outside of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, according to the Council’s resolution 37/6. Moreover, the report focused less on the prosecution of men and women who were persecuted and more on pushing a vision of human society and a particular set of values which were not shared by all and that did not correspond to a reality prescribed by many cultures. The Rapporteur remained silent on numerous threats which religious minorities were facing under populist leaders, although that was the purview of his mandate. The report was criticizing some religious teachings although it was not supposed to be doing so. It was regrettable that the Rapporteur based parts of his report on unsubstantiated sources.

Some speakers said that freedom of religion or belief and non-discrimination were two mutually reinforcing rights. Some States outlined legislative and strategic frameworks they had in place to address discrimination and uphold gender equality and freedom of religion or belief. Faith based organizations had an important role to play in education and in building inclusive and peaceful societies between people of different faiths. It was firmly rejected that religious beliefs could be used for discrimination or violence against women or girls, or against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. This was particularly true in the case of female genital mutilation. States were called upon to repeal discriminatory laws and laws criminalizing offences based on gender identity. Some said it was unacceptable that so many countries criminalized same sex relationship and some even introduced the death penalty for it. In times of rising intolerance and hate, it was even more important to work together to protect minorities. Speakers also suggested to promote freedom of religion or belief and gender equality in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, with specific goal number three on health, number four on education and number thirteen on climate action. The underlying rationale was that it was easier to find solutions when focusing on common goals. The Rapporteur was asked to share best practices of faith-based organizations working together to promote human rights. He was also asked to elaborate on the persecution against Christians worldwide and how it related to the topic of the report.

Interim Remarks by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief, responded to the comments made by delegations, namely the relevance of the report to his mandate. He reminded that the Council had asked him to apply a gender perspective to his work, which was exactly what he had done in his report. He clarified that a gender perspective applied to both men and women. The Special Rapporteur had found evidence that women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons had been victims of discrimination in the name of religion or belief. To argue that the gender perspective was not relevant to his mandate would be backtracking on what he had been tasked to do, Mr. Shaheed underlined. In many instances Governments were unable or unwilling to offer protection to women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons because of cultural, religious or other social stereotypes. Shouldn’t what lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons believed also be protected? The Special Rapporteur reminded that Governments should not use culture, patriarchal attitudes or religious arguments as an excuse for allowing gender-based violence.

Discussion

Speakers voiced concern about the rising empirical evidence of human rights violations on the grounds of religion or belief, which required coordinated efforts by the international community. They took seriously the findings that discrimination in personal status and family laws could prevent women from leaving violent relationships and have a significant bearing on their safety and well-being. Despite obvious overlaps, actors working in the human rights area rarely worked together to promote the right to freedom of religion, gender equality and non-discrimination. Speakers thus wondered how those actors could coordinate their efforts when addressing gender and religiously based inequalities. Inter-religious dialogue could lead to peace and stability. Religious harmony must be built from tolerance and tolerance was shaped by the way people lived. Non-discrimination and freedom of religion were mutually reinforcing rights, speakers emphasized, and pointed out to the positive role of faith leaders in promoting gender equality. Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief must be defended, and working together was the best way to achieve real positive impact in guaranteeing the rights of all faith or belief communities around the world.

Some speakers criticized the Special Rapporteur for having duplicated work of other United Nations bodies, such as the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls. They also observed that he did not recognize the positive contribution of religious communities to the situation of vulnerable women and girls. Likewise, they disagreed with the report’s position on the practice of abortion, which may come into conflict with persons’ religious views. Speakers called on the Special Rapporteur to deal with the distinction between individual freedom and freedom of religion in his future reports. Other speakers noted that the debate should not be perceived as an attack on religion, nor as an attack on gender equality or the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. The consequences of arguments based on religion were dramatic and degrading, such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, virginity tests, coercive gender reassignment surgeries, and conversion therapies. The discussion was sensitive and touched upon the fundamentals of cultural and religious identities, and it made some consider the dynamics of traditional powers, many of which were based on patriarchy and heteronormativity.


For use of the information media; not an official record


HRC20.016E