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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL HOLDS INTERACTIVE DIALOGUE ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF

Concludes Clustered Interactive Dialogue on the Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism and on Cultural Rights
2 March 2018

The Human Rights Council this morning held an interactive dialogue with Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Presenting his report, Mr. Shaheed said that States with official religions often discriminated against minority groups.  States with negative views sanitized the public sphere from manifestations of religion or belief.  In both cases, no religion or belief could rival State ideology.  International law imposed an obligation on States to act as guarantors of the right to exercise freedom of religion or belief.  He spoke about his visits to Albania and Uzbkistan.
 
Albania and Uzbekistan spoke as concerned parties, as did the People’s Advocate of the Republic of Albania in a video message.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers shared the Special Rapporteur’s view that States must strive to foster inclusive environments for all religions or beliefs.  They warned that one of the manifestations of a State preference for a specific religion was the adoption of nationality laws that directly or indirectly discriminated against people belonging to religious minorities, especially in contexts where they were seen as threatening the national identity. Some speakers urged the Special Rapporteur to closely follow the guidelines set forth for his mandate and pursue his work in a balanced manner.  Questions were raised on how to best address extremism, with speakers noting that any efforts being undertaken must be underpinned by the rule of law. 

Speaking in the discussion were European Union, Togo on behalf of the African Group, Holy See, Israel, Russian Federation, Norway, Pakistan, Egypt, Denmark, Canada, Switzerland, Senegal, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, United States, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Australia, Cuba, Bahrein, France, China, Ukraine, Myanmar, Greece, State of Palestine, Iraq, Mexico, Iran, Slovakia, Sudan, Eritrea, United Kingdom, Ecuador, Ireland, Azerbaijan, Sovereign Order of Malta, Angola, Netherlands and Venezuela.

The following non-governmental organizations also took the floor: Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, World Evangelical Alliance, Alsalam Foundation, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, British Humanist Association, Minority Rights Group, Article 19 -International Centre Against Censorship, and Alliance Defending Freedom.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its clustered interactive dialogue with Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and Karima Bennoune, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.  The interactive dialogue with them started on Thursday, 1 March and a summary can be found here.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Ni Aolain said that if the global counter-terrorism strategy
was to be meaningful, human rights violations had to be squarely addressed.  Human violations in counter-terrorism were the result of poor rule of law, and systematic violation of human rights.  Protracted states of emergency were the breeding ground for terrorism and violent extremism.  Ms. Ni Aolain stressed the need for transparency and accountability of the global counter-terrorism architecture. 

On her part, Ms. Bennoune noted that imprisoning artists and censoring their work, and cutting budgets for their work, were incompatible with her work.  Pervasive gender discrimination remained a serious obstacle for women’s participation in cultural life.  To strengthen the culture of dialogue and address past trauma, adequate actions in education and culture were necessary.  States should consider what kinds of spaces should be given to efforts to address past trauma. 

In the interactive discussion, speakers reaffirmed their commitment to combat all forms of terrorism.  Several speakers expressed concern over the use of counter-terrorism measures to target human rights activists.  Terrorism was a serious human rights violation and some States were abusing counter-terrorism narratives to impinge on fundamental rights.  On cultural rights, speakers said artistic expression was a key element in protecting and promoting human rights.  Speakers also highlighted the importance of protecting the cultural rights of people under occupation.

Participating in the debate on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism and on cultural rights were the delegations of Bahrain, Venezuela and Algeria.

The following non-governmental organization spoke in that debate: Iraqi Development Organization, Amnesty International, Together against the death penalty, Association for Defending Victims of Terrorism, International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM), International Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education OIDEL, Article 19 - The International Centre against Censorship, CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Cuban United Nations Association, Commission to Study the Organization of Peace, Center for Environmental and Management Studies, Center for Environmental and Management Studies, Canners International Permanent Committee, Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture, Association of World Citizens, and Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik.


The Council will next hold a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, and with the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the prevention of genocide, to be followed by an urgent debate on the situation in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta. 


Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism, and the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights

Bahrain welcomed the report on counter-terrorism, saying that Bahrain was undertaking all efforts to protect human rights despite the challenges confronting the region in terms of interference in its affairs, religious and extremist threats, intolerance and terrorism.  Venezuela strongly condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and warned that it was damaging when States failed to comply with international obligations in this regard, including by protecting and allowing certain terrorists to freely roam their streets.  Venezuela had set up a national plan to protect its cultural heritage.  Algeria appreciated the Special Rapporteur’s proposal on using an artillery of artistic responses to human rights violations and asked what approach she would propose to evaluate the compatibility of cultural products with human rights and their financing.  Terrorism was a complex phenomenon and required appropriate treatment. 

Iraqi Development Organization raised its concerns about the targeting of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia under the guise of fighting terrorism.  Saudi Arabia, which passed its first counterterror law in 2013, frequently used the pretense of fighting terrorism to arrest and jail human rights activists.  Amnesty International said in 2017 it had documented how governments had used narratives around national security and countering terrorism as justification for their efforts to reconfigure the relationship between the State and individuals with inalienable rights, including through mass detention and removal of procedural safeguards.  Together against the death penalty said that while numerous jihadist foreigners were arrested in the Middle East, following the defeat of Daesh in the end of 2017, political authorities of several concerned countries, namely European countries, had publicly voiced their wish to leave their citizens to be judged by the local authorities in these countries, even in the case of possible death penalties and executions. 

Association for Defending Victims of Terrorism stated that terrorism was the most serious human rights violation in the world, and special attention should be given to victims of terrorism.  It was also necessary to strengthen United Nations’ activities in eradicating terrorism.  International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM) reiterated the importance of the cultural rights of people under occupation, namely of Palestine and Kashmir.  In Yemen there had been an increasing pattern of unprecedented terrorism.  The impact of the Houthi coup had been accompanied by the worst forms of terrorism.  Raids by drones had led to the death of civilians. 

International Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education OIDEL, in a joint statement, underlined the importance of the educational sector in fostering cultural activities, and the importance of education as a cultural right.  Education helped communities preserve their cultural identity and cultural diversity.  Article 19 - The International Centre against Censorship drew attention to Turkey’s prolongation of its state of emergency, which had granted extensive powers to the executive and brought the country closer to authoritarianism.  It reminded of the arrest of journalists and the crackdown on the media, academics and civil society. 

CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation, in a joint statement, asked the Special Rapporteur to reflect upon how the Human Rights Council could better support the United Nations Security Council in addressing the shrinking of civic space, to provide accountability for abuses of counter-terrorism measures against persons exercising their rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression.  Cuban United Nations Association said freedom of artistic and cultural expression and the conservation of cultural heritage flourished in Cuba, and culture was one of the essential sources of development based on the spiritual, mental and ethical wealth in society.  Since the triumph of the revolution and thanks to Fidel Castro, Cuba actively and continuously toiled to ensure access to this right in every way.  Commission to Study the Organization of Peace said State-sponsored terrorism plagued Pakistan, while ironically, the Government in power was credited to have brought liberalism and democracy.  General Mohammed was the leading figure in bringing this extremist regime to power, and harassing non-Muslim populations. 

Center for Environmental and Management Studies said terrorism was ripe in Pakistan, especially around the borders of Afghanistan.  ISIS, Taliban, Mujahedeen and other groups had taken responsibility for a gigantic number of terrorist threats, while the State did little to curb these attacks.  Violence against anyone who was non-Muslim was the ideology of these groups.  Canners International Permanent Committee said Pakistan condoned sexist policies and the mal-treatment of women in Pakistan was the focal point of the Government.  Women were being punished and stoned to death for adultery, while ISIS’ massive rapes of non-Muslim women went unpunished.  It condemned the hypocrisy of the State, which while pretending to fight terrorism did not do anything about it, and justified the harassment and killing of women.  Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture said culture was a fundamental right under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  However, religious freedom was restricted in many countries.  The Bahraini authorities restricted the freedom of religion and faith, inter alia, through religious celebrations, targeting religious sites and demolishing a number of mosques in the country, including persecuting human rights organizations. 

Association of World Citizens stated that cultural rights could contribute to the development of societies and the promotion of human rights.  Houthi militia were persecuting human rights in Yemen, and particularly cultural rights.  They had altered school curricula under their control.  Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik drew attention to the state of emergency in Iran, where revolutionary courts still had inherent jurisdiction, ordering an alarming number of executions.  Turning to cultural rights, the organization reminded that women were not allowed to perform in public solo performance in Iran.

Concluding Remarks by the Mandate Holders on Countering Terrorism and on Cultural Rights

FIONNUALA NI AOLAIN, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, thanked the delegations for their statements which signaled agreement that there was a need for better regulation and oversight of states of emergency.  If the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy was to be meaningful, human rights violations had to be squarely addressed.  States should commit to the fourth pillar.  Ms. Ni Aolain commended the African Court for Human and People’s Rights on its recent robust jurisprudence on declaring states of emergency.  European and other courts should respond in similar kind.  Human violations in counter-terrorism were the result of the poor rule of law, and the systematic violation of human rights.  Protracted states of emergency were the breeding ground for terrorism and violent extremism.  Ms. Ni Aolain stressed the need for transparency and accountability of the global counter-terrorism architecture.  The current lack of transparency in the United Nations counter-terrorism architecture posed a serious danger because it could override the sovereign capacity of States to implement human rights.  First of all, the Security Council had an obligation to consult States and human rights experts.  Secondly, entities within the United Nations were fully obliged to implement the fourth pillar of the global counter-terrorism architecture.  Thirdly, the counter-terrorism architecture remained sealed off from meaningful consultation with civil society.  As for gender aspects, prolonged detention had notable negative consequences for families.  Military courts also placed a significant burden on family life and women.  Women were often burdened by the need to navigate the social special space in states of emergency, Ms. Ni Aolain noted. 

KARIMA BENNOUNE, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said she had been heartened by the global positive responses to her report, and expressed hope that the Council would consider holding debates on socially engaged arts and culture.  Imprisoning artists and censoring their work, and cutting budgets for their work, were incompatible with her mandate.  Pervasive gender discrimination remained a serious obstacle for women’s participation in cultural life.  Another essential step was combatting sexual harassment in the field of arts and culture.  Those were crucial campaigns for equal cultural rights.  Ms. Bennoune noted that she would find value in coordinating her work with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, as she did in collaborating with other Special Rapporteurs.  To strengthen the culture of dialogue and address past trauma, adequate actions in education and culture were necessary.  States should consider what kinds of spaces should be given to efforts to address past trauma.  The international community should seek to fully ratify and implement UNESCO’s Convention on the Diversity of Cultural Expression.  States should provide adequate security for artists and cultural workers, especially for those in armed conflicts.  In conclusion, Ms. Bennoune called on countries to increase their budget allocations to culture. 

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (A/HRC/37/49)

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief – mission to Albania (A/HRC/37/49/Add.1).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief – mission to Uzbekistan (A/HRC/37/49/Add.2)

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief – comment by Albania (A/HRC/37/49/Add.3).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief – comments by Uzbekistan (A/HRC/37/49/Add.4).

Presentation by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, presenting his report, said his findings identified easily discernable patterns in the relationships between States and religion or belief.  Classifying States according to those relationships was challenging as they constantly evolved and underwent adjustments as a result of political or social pressure.  The report identified these relationships as States that adopted an official religion, States that did not identify with any religion or belief, and States that held a negative view of manifestations of religion or belief.  States with official religions often discriminated against minority groups, he said.  States with negative views sanitized the public sphere from manifestations of religion or belief.  In both cases, no religion or belief could rival State ideology.  International law imposed obligations on States to act as guarantors of the right to exercise freedom of religion or belief.  This role was most likely to be achieved when States adopted postures of cooperation.  Increasing diversity of religion or belief called for a robust commitment to pluralism.

Turning to his visits to Albania and Uzbekistan, he said freedom of religion or belief was a general reality in Albania.  He found many instances of Government policy promoting communal engagement that could be sources of inspiration for other countries.  Despite its religious neutrality, the Albanian State had entered into partnerships with several religious communities.  One of the greatest challenges facing religious communities in Albania was the restitution of properties seized during the Communist era.  In Uzbekistan, while the Constitution upheld secularism, the right to religion or belief was subject to excessive regulations by the State.  Thousands of people had been detained under vague charges.  He was encouraged to see a vigorous reform process to address his concerns.  The Government was moving from a suppression model to a tolerance one.

Statements by Concerned Countries

Albania, speaking as a concerned country, commended the Special Rapporteur for his first official visit to the country in May of 2017 and his hard work in the preparation of his report and his presentation to the Human Rights Council.  Freedom of religion or belief were an advantage for the Albanian people and were of precious value for the Albanian Government.  The Government fully supported religious communities for the exercise of their rights.  Freedom of religion or belief was guaranteed in the laws.  The ratification of international agreements to this effect had also enhanced the respect of these freedoms.  Freedom of religion or belief and the promotion and protection of harmony and religious co-existence were a practical reality in Albania.  Albania’s long experience on coexistence had shown the virtue of simplicity and humility as a means of listening to and exchanging ideas, and as an experience of theological exchange.  Albania was in the forefront of combatting religious intolerance.

People’s Advocate of the Republic of Albania, in a video statement, said Albania was characterized by an admirably free exercise of religious rituals.  Relations between the State and religious communities were provided by the Constitution.  However, the real challenge seemed to be the concrete implementation of these agreements to avoid the general perception of the clergy, as expressed in various meetings held with them, that such agreements are not always contemplated in good faith by the Government.  An important area in which real progress was needed was the return or compensation of assets seized by the communist regime to the religious communities.  The immediate restitution of property issues would provide a strong input to the strengthening of freedom of religion in the country through building up their financial independence.  Restitution of other movable assets such as cult objects and archives would allow religious congregations to consider themselves reinstated in their rights after more than 25 years of democracy in the country.

Uzbekistan, speaking as a concerned country, said that Uzbekistan was a country of inter-ethnic, inter-cultural and inter-linguistic tolerance, possessing a unique model that had provided inter-ethnic peace and religious tolerance.  Uzbekistan welcomed the visit but regretted that certain provisions of the report did not reflect the real situation in the sphere of ensuring freedom of religion or belief, particularly having in mind frequent references to unconfirmed sources.  Comments of the Government to the report had been submitted to the Council and hope was expressed that it would be useful to study them.
Uzbekistan was a secular State which had created all conditions for more than 130 nations and 16 confessions.  Uzbekistan was ready for further active and constructive partnership with the United Nations human rights institutions.  Concerning the specific plans, Uzbekistan planned to develop policy concept in the sphere of religion and inter-ethnic relations, to give a clear definition of a secular state to further strengthen legal guarantees of freedom of activity of religious organization, liberalizing the registration of religious organizations.  Within the celebration of the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Uzbekistan would hold the Asian Human Rights Forum in Samarkand in November 2018, together with the Office of the High Commissioner.  Adoption of the Beirut Declaration enhancing the role of religion in promoting human rights and the initiative Faith for Rights. 

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

European Union said the report clearly examined State-religion relationships.  The European Union continued to support freedom of religion or belief and condemned acts of intolerance based on, or in the name of, religion or belief.  The European Union asked what were the main impediments to equality in this context.  Togo, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said the African Youth Charter protected freedoms of religion or belief.  The conditions for enjoyment of those freedoms were ensured, he said, calling on States to remain neutral in the field of religion.  Holy See said many societies adopted attitudes of rejection to religious freedom, marginalizing religious minorities.  Reductive attitudes were also being perceived within international organizations, leading to a state of irrelevance of the international human rights system.  

Israel said the report stressed the importance for States to continually strive to create spaces of inclusiveness for all.  Israel said fomenting positive environments was impossible in States run by clerics and asked how terrorism linked to political Islam could be countered.  Russian Federation recalled resolutions that outlined the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and expressed hope he would be strictly guided by those guidelines.  Issues of religion or belief must be addressed in a balanced manner.  Norway said combatting extremism must have the rule of law as its point of departure.  Religion fostered a sense of belonging and the status of freedom of religion or belief could serve as an indicator of the greater human rights situation in specific countries.

Pakistan said that the Constitution guaranteed equal rights and status to citizens, irrespective of religion and that the judiciary had been vigilant defender of the right to freedom of religion or belief.   The Supreme Court in its landmark judgment in 2014 had held that every citizen of Pakistan was free to exercise the right to profess, practice or propagate his religious views.  Egypt stated that the Egyptian Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion or belief.  Concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, it was stated that certain sexual behaviour had been rejected in many countries, and it was not fair to impose certain values.  Denmark noted the negative global trend in freedom of religion or belief as a cause for concern.  The report of the former Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief had noted that freedom of religion or belief were a tangible reality in Denmark.

Canada remained concerned about the fate of all those that had been facing prosecution on religious grounds and welcomed the focus on freedom of religion or belief in women’s rights.  How could Member States benefit from diversity and apply it in international frameworks of human rights?   Switzerland said that discrimination based on religion remained a challenge in today’s world, and appeals against blasphemy laws, particularly application of the death penalty, had been launched.  How could the State remain a neutral actor in a situation of increasing xenophobia in society?  Senegal noted that the principle of equality of all citizens was enshrined in the Constitution of Senegal.  Material and financial support was granted to religious events and religious monuments to all confessions.

Tunisia said freedom of religion and belief was a fundamental right which was guaranteed to all citizens.  The Constitution undertook to prohibit terrorism and hate speech and to sensitize young people to this effect.  The protection of belief and conscience fell under the responsibility of the State but there was an international responsibility to protect it.  Libya said it was important to promote freedom of religion without mocking others, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, belief or affiliation.  These should be respected and in line with international human rights law, thereby contributing to fostering the principles of tolerance.  Saudi Arabia said it had no laws or legislation that discriminated against anyone.  Freedom of religions was guaranteed to non-Muslims who could exercise their religion in their residences and in their diplomatic missions. 

United States said they would continue to engage internationally and speak up when they saw religious persecution occurring.  Anti-blasphemy laws should be abolished and cooperation under the Istanbul process was encouraged.  Italy shared the conclusion from the report about the close relation existing between respect for freedom of religion or belief and respect for diversity.  The Special Rapporteur was asked to elaborate on the importance of investing in literacy on religious freedom.   Austria said that it was in a State’s interest to foster inter-religious dialogue.  Noting the privileged status of certain religions, it was noted that minority religious needed additional protection.

Hungary said acts of intolerance against religious minorities were a serious concern and States had the primary responsibility of protecting fundamental rights and freedoms.  Victims of acts of intolerance must receive assistance.  Australia expressed particular concern over the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East.  Australia asked how States could support civil society actors in building coalitions that transcended religious boundaries.  Cuba said the Government respected all religions as enshrined in its Constitution.  Relationships with members of diverse religious groups were being fostered and religious organizations were able to operate without State interference.

Bahrain said States must protect all religions and leave no space for discrimination towards any belief.  A Royal Order was issued today to create a global hub to foster inter-faith cooperation.  France said freedom of religion or belief must not be placed above or below any other right.  The practice of religion, including in public, should not obstruct the fundamental rights of other persons.  China said respecting freedom of religion or belief was a long-term Government priority.  The Government was providing significant funds to maintain religious sites, including in Tibet.  Ukraine said that Russia continued to use repression in occupied territories in Ukraine.  A prime example was the kidnaping of an activist and professor in January 2016 for alleged weapons possession.  The Special Rapporteur had to visit and assess the situation concerning freedom of religion or belief in occupied territories in Ukraine.

Remarks by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religious or Belief

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said all lived in an age of rising intolerance.  There was indeed a link between hatred and religious intolerance.  Religion was being used to incite hatred and intolerance.  Today marked the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  For freedom of belief, three different models of freedom of belief had evolved throughout history.  The first had a focus on maintaining religious peace, and finding ways that different religious communities would not fight against each other.  From there, the world had gone to the idea of pluralism, and the tolerance of minorities.  Now, however there was focus on universal human rights, whereby the right of the individual to freedom of religion and belief and how to protect him was in focus.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the other human rights documents of this era did not speak of protecting religion but of protecting the individual. 

Referring to article 18, Mr. Shaheed stated that though it was important to religion, it did not suffice in this context.  Article 18 spoke of the right to adopt and practice, both religious and non-religious beliefs.  It also asserted that there could be no coercion, and maintained the right to publicly manifest religion.  If there was an exception to inflict upon this right, it was because of public order.  Public order, however public, could in no way destroy that right.  States obligations, he also pointed out, did not end with article 18.  They also had to look at article 27 on the rights of minorities, and their obligations to this effect.  Freedom of religion and belief went hand in hand with the idea of equality and non-discrimination.   Other articles indicated a very clear message to States to prohibit incitement to violence and discrimination, while others maintained that none of the rights could be used to destroy other rights.  He appealed to all to look at these rights in a holistic manner.  Liberty and equality could not be pitted against each other.  The right to equality could not be denied because of the right to religious freedom or belief.   Blasphemy laws were to be repealed, as were laws which directly forbade an individual’s right to practice their religion.  Education was also an area of concern, whereby children were sometimes imposed a different religious education than that of their family.

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

Myanmar firmly believed that interfaith dialogue played an essential role in enhancing communal peace, harmony and tolerance.  Myanmar had established interfaith dialogue in 2018 to reach out to the public and strengthen religious harmony in society.   Greece undertook initiatives seeking to promote peaceful coexistence in the Middle East, by organizing in Athens two conferences on religious and cultural pluralism.  A special resolution would be submitted to the General Assembly on religious and cultural pluralism.  State of Palestine said that in the case of occupied Palestine, Israel continued to violate the rights of Palestinians to freedom of religion and belief, continuing its aggression against the civilian population and holy sites.  How could Israel be compelled to end its persistent violation of the right to freedom of religion and other human rights of Palestinians?

Iraq adopted a policy forbidding prejudice and discrimination and the Constitution enshrined freedom of religion for all.  The Government had been seeking to ensure unity of its country as well as enhance intercommunal harmony and reconciliation, particularly after terrorist attacks.  Mexico was aware that international law regulated standards of religious freedoms.  Respect of pluralism was essential, the rights of minorities had to be fully respected, and States were urged to adopt legislation that fully respected religious rights.  Iran attached great importance to promoting inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue and protecting rights of all community members.  The Special Rapporteur was asked to elaborate on the status of Muslim minorities in some European countries where the right to wear the hijab in school or at work had been restricted or prohibited.

Slovakia shared the view that freedom of religion could never be used to justify violations, and asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate more on what “structural equality” States should look at in terms of freedom of religion and about measures to facilitate such an approach.  Sudan noted that religious freedom was one of the forms of its identity, adding that non-Islamic confessions were present in the country and were not discriminated against.  Sudan’s laws prohibited attacks against any religion and protected them from discrimination.  Eritrea stated that its rich history of religious tolerance, co-existence and harmony in a turbulent region remained a notable example.  The country was marked by secularism, thus limiting Government activities in religious institutions and matters.

United Kingdom said it was actively working with a range of faith leaders, civil society and international partners to safeguard the right of people to practice their beliefs.  It voiced deep concern about the growing level of violations against members of religious minorities, noting that States had to lead the way in the protection of their rights.  Ecuador noted that it promoted freedom of religion or belief, guided by the principle of the defence of human rights and non-discrimination.  It added that religion should not be used as a pretext to curb the rights of women and girls.  Ireland voiced concern about the continued discrimination, persecution, intimidation and violence endured by religious minorities in various parts of the world, and noted that migrants and refugees were particularly vulnerable in that regard.

Azerbaijan said that for many centuries, Muslims, Christians and Jews had been living side by side in harmony.  The Government had been providing support to build and restore synagogues, mosques, and churches, and to create new cultural centres for various ethnic and religious groups.  Azerbaijan was concerned about growing manifestations of religious discrimination and hatred around the world.  Sovereign Order of Malta shared concerns with regard to regulations applied in certain countries that restricted worship, practice and teaching and those that interfered with the autonomy and internal management of faith communities, including the freedom to establish and maintain charitable or humanitarian institutions.  Angola said the freedom of religion and freedom of conscience by all citizens was guaranteed and protected under its Constitution.  At the same time, there were certain worship practices, such as witchcraft, which were not in line with human rights.  Angola had launched a series of activities to regulate these, coordinated by the National Institute for Religious Affairs.

Netherlands emphasized the universality, indivisibility and inclusivity of all human rights.  It was gravely concerned about the position of the Rohingya Muslims, the persecution of Christians in various parts of the world, the situation of the Baha’i, as well as the position of non-believers, all of which were under increasing pressure.  Venezuela said the report of the Special Rapporteur had placed an emphasis for the State to be a guarantor of freedom of religious belief.  Venezuela’s Constitution enshrined the freedom of all persons to practice their faith as long as they did not interfere with public order. 

Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights highlighted policies and laws adopted by China which constituted a serious threat to religious freedom or belief, namely those with respect to Tibetan Buddhism.  The Foundation asked all members of the Council to urge China to respect internationally accepted standards of freedom of religion or belief.  World Evangelical Alliance advocated for the creation of a space for conscientious objection, and invited the Special Rapporteur to suggest creative proposals on the pathway to real pluralism.  Could cases of reasonable accommodation be included in his next reports?  Alsalam Foundation
 shared the Special Rapporteur’s concern about pressures by the Bahrain Government against the Shia religious leaders and revocation of their nationality.  Even though Shia represented the majority in the country, they comprised only five per cent in the security forces. 

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development drew the Council’s attention to rising systematic restrictions to freedom of religion or belief in several Asian countries, namely Pakistan, Nepal, India, Maldives, Indonesia, Myanmar and Malaysia.  It noted that anti-blasphemy laws were used to target dissidents and secular thinkers.  British Humanist Association highlighted that anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws were used in a number of States to target humanists and non-believers, noting that countries should adopt a deep grounding in secularity based on human rights.  Minority Rights Group noted that one of the manifestations of a State preference for a specific religion was the adoption of nationality laws that directly or indirectly discriminated against people belonging to religious minorities, especially in contexts where they were seen as threatening the national identity. 
 
Article 19 - International Centre Against Censorship recalled the words of the High Commissioner that the promotion of national supremacy violated international laws.  Blasphemy laws and laws on sedition and national harmony had been in fact protecting States and they did not respect diversity; the Istanbul forum appeared stalled.  Alliance Defending Freedom said that States had to refrain from endorsing views which were detrimental for fundamental freedoms, particularly in the current overall worsening state of freedom of religion across the world.

Concluding Remarks

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, reiterated his appreciation to those who spoke in the dialogue.  Freedom of religion or belief was not an invitation to violence, but a pathway to create more tolerant and prosperous societies.  He stressed the commitment to protect human beings rather than ideas.  Anti-apostasy and anti-blasphemy laws tried to protect religious ideas at the expense of human lives.  In order to build more tolerant societies, it was important to ensure more respectful rule of law and equal access to justice.  Religions needed human rights because without them religious communities could not function.  Likewise, religion contributed to the advancement of the human rights framework.  Education was a core area where intolerance could be fought.   In that sense, Mr. Shaheed stressed the importance of literacy on freedom of religion, and of literacy on pluralism and multiple identities.



For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC18/018E