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ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe

HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL HOLDS CLUSTERED INTERACTIVE DIALOGUE ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF AND ON THE SALE AND SEXUAL EXPLOITATION OF CHILDREN

5 March 2019

The Human Rights Council this morning held a clustered interactive dialogue with Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and on the reports of Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material.

Presenting his report, Mr. Shaheed noted that freedom of expression was evidently indispensable to the enjoyment of all other rights, including for the meaningful enjoyment of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.  Whether they sought to uphold public order, foster inter-religious harmony, or combat incitement, laws that punished or prevented criticism of religion or belief per se, or that censored expression which may offend the sensibilities of adherents to a particular belief, effectively undermined the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and exceeded the limitations regime under international law.  The Special Rapporteur also briefed the Council about his country visit to Tunisia.

Mr. Shaheed, presenting on behalf of Ms. Boer-Buquicchio her thematic study on the sale and sexual exploitation of children in the context of sports, said that there was an increasing awareness of practices that could amount to the sale and trafficking of children, especially in the context of transfers, and due to absence of clear contractual relationships.  There was a need for independent reporting mechanisms within sports organizations, in close coordination with existing national child protection frameworks.  Mr. Shaheed also briefed the Council on Ms. Boer-Buquicchio’s visits to Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Ireland and Malaysia. 

Tunisia, Ireland, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Malaysia spoke as concerned countries.  The National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia also spoke.

In the ensuing discussion on freedom of religion or belief, speakers underlined that freedom of religion could only be limited by law in certain strictly defined ways and under specific circumstances defined by international law.  They underscored the intersectional and mutually reinforcing nature of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, and they inquired about the role that faith-based actors had in upholding the international human rights framework.  Some speakers voiced concern about the wide-spread use of blasphemy and apostasy laws which in some countries could lead to the death penalty.  Moreover, there was a dramatic increase in hate crimes against religious minorities, facilitated by the ease of expressing hatred online.

On the sale and sexual exploitation of children, speakers stressed the need to respect international standards and codes of conduct of sporting organizations.  The world of sports was not seen by the public as a high-risk environment, and yet it was not spared human rights violations.  Speakers wondered how Governments could best work with sporting organizations to create safe, fair and accessible sporting environments that protected the rights of children.  Speakers also drew attention to online sexual exploitation, which had a transnational nature and required international cooperation.  They also voiced concern about the difficulties faced by child victims of sexual abuse in the criminal justice system.

Speaking were European Union, Angola on behalf of the African Group, Uruguay on behalf of a group of countries, Spain, Pakistan, Holy See, Iceland, United Kingdom, Sovereign Order of Malta, Israel, Liechtenstein, Brazil, Belgium, Canada, State of Palestine, Croatia, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Czech Republic, Libya, Cuba, Australia, Togo, Russian Federation, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, Netherlands, Italy, Philippines, Austria, France, Mexico, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Norway, Poland, Algeria, Ireland, Nepal, Iran, Bahrain, China, Georgia, Burkina Faso, Albania, Greece, Ukraine, Malta, Cameroon, Ecuador, Denmark, Montenegro, Slovakia, South Africa, Indonesia, Armenia, Cyprus, and Bangladesh.  The United Nations Children’s Fund also spoke.

Also taking the floor were the following civil society organizations: Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, World Evangelical Alliance, Alliance Defending Freedom, International Humanist and Ethical Union, Association for Progressive Communications, Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience, Pan African Union for Science and Technology, Maarij Foundation for Peace and Development, and Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik.

The Council will next hold a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict.  

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (A/HRC/40/58). (Advance unedited version: A/HRC/40/58)

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief – visit to Tunisia (A/HRC/40/58/Add.1). (Advance unedited version: A/HRC/40/58/Add.1)

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief – comments by the State (A/HRC/40/58/Add.2).  (Advance unedited version: A/HRC/40/58/Add.1)

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material (A/HRC/40/51).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material – visit to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (A/HRC/40/51/Add.1).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material – visit to Ireland (A/HRC/40/51/Add.2).  (Advance unedited version: A/HRC/40/51/Add.2)

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material – visit to Malaysia (A/HRC/40/51/Add.3).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material – comments by the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (A/HRC/40/51/Add.4).

The Council has before it an addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material – comments by Malaysia (A/HRC/40/51/Add.5).

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

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief, reminded that his reports in the past two years had highlighted that freedom of religion or belief existed in a legal continuum with a range of other rights.  It was vitally important to conceptualize the relationship between those rights as being mutually reinforcing, rather than one of tension or hierarchy.  The current report, which examined the impact that excessive restrictions on freedom of expression had on freedom of religion or belief, persisted in promoting that observation, in addition to detailing the activities that the Special Rapporteur had undertaken in the past year.  The current report spoke to growing concern about the implication for freedom of religion or belief of State responses to expressions involving religion or belief that may have been deemed offensive to some, or that incited discrimination or hostility.  In the report, the Special Rapporteur concluded that freedom of expression was evidently indispensable to the enjoyment of all other rights, including for the meaningful enjoyment of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.  The peaceful manifestation of religion or belief relied on the degree of protections afforded to freedom of expression, among other rights. 

For many, deeming an affront to religious sensibilities to be a criminal offense stood in stark contrast to the view that freedom of expression was so fundamental, it could only be limited in exceptional circumstances, regardless of its potential to “offend, shock or disturb.”  For others, some expression could be so egregiously offensive or hateful that it felt outside the scope of protection.  That debate had provoked a range of States to resort to laws which increasingly sought to protect the “feelings” of individuals, or which attempted to legislate civility.  The current report argued that whether they sought to uphold public order, foster interreligious harmony, or combat incitement, laws that punished or prevented criticism of religion or belief per se, or that censored expression which may offend the sensibilities of adherents to a particular belief, effectively undermined the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and exceeded the limitations regime under international law.

Turning to his visit to Tunisia from 9 to 19 April 2019, the Special Rapporteur had noted various indicators of the Government’s efforts to implement its international and national commitments to human rights.  That included the adoption of laws and policies that effectuated constitutional guarantees of human rights.  The adoption of those measures constituted positive initial steps in the protracted process for consolidating democracy, and they would require further timely action if the international obligations were to be established and sustained in the country.

AHMED SHAHEED, reading a statement on behalf of MAUD DE BOER-BUQUICCHIO, Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material, noted that the world was waking up to the power of the voice of children committed to a cause where adults had failed so far.  Sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy of the Catholic Church were no longer taboo, as victims continued to come forward.  The adoption of the Global Compacts on migration and on refugees was recognition of the shared responsibility to guarantee the rights of children on the move. 

Introducing the thematic study on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, the Rapporteur said such practices occurred everywhere, and sports were no exception.  The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights endorsed in 2011, with their three pillars, including corporate responsibility and access to remedy, had to be an authoritative benchmark for States.  There was an increasing awareness of practices in sports that could amount to sale and trafficking of children, especially in the context of transfers, particularly due to the absence of clear contractual relationships.  International legal frameworks had set clear obligations for States and private actors such as sports organizations to deal with human rights violations.  Regarding prevention, there was a need for independent reporting mechanisms within sports organizations in close coordination with existing national child protection frameworks.  Within major sporting events there was forced displacement, sexual exploitation and child labour, impacting the right to education. 

Turning to the visit carried out in November 2017 to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Special Rapporteur noted significant progress in the incorporation of provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into national legislation.  Nonetheless, there was a lack of implementation of child protection measures due to insufficient human and financial resources, so developing cooperation with non-profit organizations would be an important step forward.  The phenomena of abuse, violence and sale or trafficking of children for sexual and labour exploitation, as well as child marriage were vast and real.  Putting an end to impunity should be the core priority for the Government. 

As for the visit to Ireland in May 2018, significant steps were noted such as the recognition of children as rights holders under the Constitution, setting up of the child protection agency Tusla and measures which had been put in place to protect children against information and technology related abuse.  However, issues remained concerning the absence of a uniform methodology on how sexual offences against children were defined in the country.  Horrendous child abuse that occurred in the past across institutions, both State-run and by religious orders, was yet to be comprehensively investigated.  The State was urged to enable access to justice and open their records. 

The Rapporteur said the visit to Malaysia in September/October 2018 had come at an opportune time when the Deputy Prime Minister was seeking to raise the minimum age of marriage for girls and boys to 18 years, without exception.  While significant progress was noted, Malaysia was called upon to double its efforts to afford all children the protection they needed.  In conclusion, it was noted that the lack of data on the sale and sexual exploitation of children continued to hamper the work of the mandate. 

In the report to the General Assembly last year, the Rapporteur said a number of suggestions were made to allow the review process of Goals 8 and 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals to become more targeted towards crimes against children.

Statements by Concerned Countries

Tunisia, speaking as a concerned country, reminded that the visit had happened upon the invitation of the Tunisian Government, as part of its efforts to advance human rights as part of the country’s democratic transition.  Freedom of religion or belief was one of the main principles of the democratic transition in the country.  Tunisia had always been a land of peace and coexistence, where minorities lived in freedom.  Diversity was a thing of wealth, and not of division and conflict.  Tunisia was a State based on the principle of citizenship and the Constitution provided for the protection of religious sites and of freedom of belief.  The authorities continued to safeguard those rights by raising awareness of citizens, including through the school curriculum.  It was the duty of the State to strengthen the freedom of religion or belief.  The Government had abolished the law that prevented women from marrying foreigners, as well as laws on polygamy and the marriage of minors.  Parliament had presented a draft law in October 2018 to enshrine those essential freedoms.  The judicial framework in Tunisia was effective and it dealt with all violations of human rights.  As for the Special Rapporteur’s observation that Tunisia’s laws were based on the Sharia law, the delegation clarified that the laws were based on the acts adopted by Parliament. 

Ireland, speaking as a concerned country, noted the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur in relation to the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.  Ireland was committed to ratifying the Optional Protocol and it was anticipated that it would be ratified in 2019.  With regard to the recommendations on the care, recovery and reintegration of children, the delegation reiterated the country’s efforts to implement a “one house” service, which would bring together forensic, child protection, health, therapeutic and policing services in a child-centred way to support children and their families, who had suffered sexual abuse.  The Children First Act of 2015 provided a number of key child protection measures, including raising awareness of child abuse and neglect.  Ireland was one of the few countries to have developed a policy designed to facilitate the active involvement in policy discussions.  As for the issue of mother and baby homes, Ireland’s view was that the scope of the statutory investigation by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was focused and comprehensive.

Lao People’s Democratic Republic, speaking as a concerned country, stated that the Government and in particular the National Commission for the Advancement of Women and Mothers and Children, with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund, had taken all necessary measures to prevent and combat the sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country.  Work was also underway to care for and reintegrate child victims into society.  In response to the capacity gap identified, the United Nations Children’s Fund was supporting the Government to build their capacity to provide better child protection services.  Lao People’s Democratic Republic thanked the Special Rapporteur for the constructive recommendations.  Some of them would be implemented by the Government, in cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Malaysia, speaking as a concerned country, said that human rights were a high priority in the national development agenda of Malaysia.  The overall report provided a fair view of the situation in Malaysia, measures in place and the challenges faced in the area of the sale and sexual exploitation of children.  Malaysia had provided comments and clarifications on the draft report, some which had been taken into account.  Still, there were some clarifications that needed to be made.  The procedure on adoption had been comprehensively organized to ensure there would be no room for any illegal activities, especially on child trafficking.  As for the operation of a specialized court for children in the states of Sarawak, Selangor and Johor, it was operating throughout Malaysia, not just those counties.  The Rapporteur stated that all family matters relating to Muslim children were governed by the Islamic Family Law Act 1984, but this Act only applied to federal territories, while other states had their respective Islamic Family Law enactments.  Measures that had been taken to ensure child participation in judicial, administrative and other decisions affecting them were enlisted.  The appointment of a Children’s Commissioner was also planned and the Government was working with Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines to curb cross-border sale and trafficking of children.

National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia fully supported any action to conclusively put an end to the practice of child marriage, both de facto and de jure.  The Government’s reluctance to accept the Universal Periodic Review recommendations on this issue were concerning.  Still, the decision of the Sabah state cabinet to set the legal minimum marriage age at 18 was encouraging, and hope was expressed that other states would follow suit.  The detention of undocumented children generally occurred because they were found together with adult offenders or without valid documents, so alternatives to the detention policy were being proposed by the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia.  Stateless children were not eligible for any form of aid in terms of food, textbooks or any special assistance.  As a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Government had to ensure that all children had access to education.  The Government was working on setting up a Special Court for sexual crimes against children, the first of its kind in southeast Asia, and the Ministry of Education was developing a human rights module for children which included discrimination.  Nonetheless, more effort was needed to ensure a robust system of protection.

Interactive Dialogue

European Union underlined that freedom of religion could only be limited by law in certain strictly defined ways and under specific circumstances defined by international law.  How could multi-stakeholder initiatives be best put to use to prevent abuses and violations of the rights of children in sports?  Angola, speaking on behalf of the African Group, noted that the Special Rapporteur had taken into account the fact that African countries found it difficult to implement the prevention of abuse of children in sports due to low financial resources.  In terms of freedom of religion, the African Group was committed to spreading a culture of religious tolerance and acceptance of others.   Uruguay, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, firmly condemned the sexual exploitation of children, including in sports, and encouraged deeper international cooperation to protect them.  States and sports organizations needed to take measures to eradicate child labour in professional sports and to promote children’s right to education.  

Spain agreed that in the complex world of professional sports, children could be subjected to exploitation.  For that reason, Spain had launched a campaign to prevent and detect abuse, as well as to raise awareness of the problem, and train educators.  Pakistan noted that the Special Rapporteur’s observations on the Ahmadiya minority in the country were grossly exaggerated and inaccurate.  They enjoyed equal rights and they had risen to high ranks in public and private sectors.  Holy See advocated the universal and unbiased application of the fundamental right to freedom of religion.  It was vital and sensible to incorporate into legislation options that allowed everyone to act freely and in accordance with their deepest convictions.

Iceland reiterated their worry that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia had increased in Europe, where people were discriminated against simply for their faith, and noted the Special Rapporteur’s attempt to highlight the importance of not curtailing freedom of expression, when addressing issues of incitement to discrimination or hostility on the basis of religion or belief.  United Kingdom had commissioned an independent global review into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s support for persecuted Christians, looking at what additional practical steps could be taken to support those facing discrimination.  They also expressed their deep concern about violations of freedom of religion in many countries from Baha’i’s in Yemen, to Jehova’s Witnesses in Russia.  Sovereign Order of Malta welcomed the report on religious freedom, and welcomed the inclusion in this report of the Beirut Declaration on “Faith for Rights”.  The Special Rapporteur on the sale of children’s report and the recommendations brought forward in it were also welcomed. 

Israel stated that according to its legislation, any form of sexual suggestions towards children were strictly prohibited in cases of abuse of relationship of authority, punishable by two years of imprisonment even where there was no explicit rejection.  They also stated that the Israeli Olympic Committee had adopted rules to prevent sexual harassment in sports, in particular affecting their dignity, health, safety and gender equality.  Liechtenstein stated that ending all forms of modern slavery and human trafficking was a key part of the country’s priorities.  In this regard, along with Australia and the United Nations University, they had launched a Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, known as the Lichtenstein Initiative, to develop actionable measures that could be used to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking.  Brazil stated that religious intolerance was a criminal offence, leading to one to three years of imprisonment.  A Committee for the respect of religious identity had been in place since 2013, and it promoted religious freedom.

Belgium asked what concrete civil, administrative and policy measures could be taken to curtail religious hate speech and what could civil society do to prevent religion from being politicized?  Which actions could States take to make sure that the United Nations Principles on Business and Human Rights were better streamlined in the context of sports to fight the sale and sexual exploitation of children?  Canada noted that the report underscored the intersectional and mutually reinforcing nature of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.  The Rapporteur was asked to expand on the role that faith-based actors could play in upholding the international human rights framework, including the right to non-discrimination.  State of Palestine said that report stressed the obligation of States to combat religious hatred and terrorism.  In Palestine, Jewish settlers routinely attacked Palestinian villages, mosques and churches, and drew racist graffiti calling for death of Arabs, so the Rapporteur was asked what could be done to compel Israel to end its persistent violation of the right to freedom of religion of the Palestinian people?

United Nations Children’s Fund appreciated the thematic focus on the sale and exploitation of children in the context of sports.  The report provided important suggestions for how sporting associations, clubs and private actors could adopt measures to ensure that children involved in sports were protected and their rights respected.  Croatia noted the relevance of education in the promotion of tolerance and respect for diversity, including with regard to religious expression.  What was the Rapporteur’s opinion on the role of religious leaders in speaking out against intolerance and hate speech?  Tunisia reaffirmed the need to respect the freedom of religion or belief and asked how could a State guarantee such a right without making prejudice to any religion.  On the thematic report in the context of sports, Tunisia had adopted laws ensuring children’s rights to physical and mental development without any obstacles.

Jordan recalled that it had adopted a comprehensive legislative approach to the protection of children, including in sporting events, with strict provisions for infractions.  At the international level, Jordan had been one of the countries that had proposed a resolution to celebrate religious diversity and harmony.  Iraq stated that its numerous religions and confessions enjoyed freedom of religion, and that the country’s combat against terrorism was part of its effort to safeguard that right.  On the protection of children, Iraq stressed the need to respect international standards and codes of conduct of sporting organizations.  Czech Republic said that it promoted freedom of expression and information as a gateway to the enjoyment of a wider range of rights, such as freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.  What was the best way to improve protection against discrimination in the context of digitalization? 

Libya said it punished trafficking in persons in order to prevent the sale of children, adding that any abuse of children in sports should be investigated and that perpetrators should be sanctioned.  Cuba regretted that the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion had not consulted with the Cuban Government.  It reiterated concern about the United Nations mechanisms that used agendas that were far removed from the protection of human rights.  Australia welcomed the report’s analysis of the common limitation of expression involving religion or belief from around the world.  How could Governments best work with sporting organizations to create safe, fair and accessible sporting environments that protected the rights of children?
 
Togo shared the concerns raised by the Special Rapporteur on the risks faced by children in sport.  Togo invited States and non-state actors to provide guaranteed links to legal mechanisms to prevent some of the risks raised by the Rapporteur in her report.  Russian Federation said the Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief had ignored the situation in Ukraine, where supporters of the Russian orthodox church were attacked, thereby having their freedom of religion limited.  The report on child exploitation in sport had a negative assessment of parents of children involved in sports.  Russia warned against blaming parents for some of the risks faced by children, stating that parents should be given support to help them protect children at risk.  Sierra Leone was one of the countries acclaimed for its religious tolerance.  Sierra Leone noted the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children’s focus on exploitation in sport, saying that it had adopted a number of laws to address these risks. 

Thailand said that as the current Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Thailand was reviewing the Regional Plan of Action on the Elimination of Violence against Children, in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund.  The Association attached importance to multi-stakeholder engagement, as a coordinating platform for governments and civil society organizations.  Venezuela stated that its Magna Carta enshrined the rights of all people to practice freedom of belief as long as this did not offend others.  However, this right did not mean they could shield themselves behind these freedoms to instigate hatred or religious intolerance against others.  Venezuela’s law for the protection of children and adolescents criminalized the sale or exploitation of children, regardless of where this took place, including in the context of sports.  United Arab Emirates thanked the Special Rapporteur for highlighting cases that could restrict religious freedom or belief when used outside the framework of international law.  The country was a model of religious acceptance, and had in place a federal decree which banned any insults against divinities or prophets, and the law protected all people against religious intolerance. 

Netherlands said that freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression were fundamental twin rights, but it was difficult to strike the right balance between them.  What were the Special Rapporteur’s views on the role of social media companies, as regards the recommendation to use a prioritizing approach in situations where two rights were competing with each other?  Italy asked what were best practices on the good balance between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression?  An agreement was signed in 2018 between the Ministry of the Interior, the Association of Italian cities and towns, and the Italian Football Federation, dealing with foreign minors and young adults benefiting from the Italian integration system.  Philippines considered the protection of children a top priority, as they comprised a third of the population.  Online sexual exploitation had a transnational nature and it required international cooperation, so the Philippines was a member of the Global Alliance against Child Sexual Abuse Online.

Austria was concerned about the wide-spread use of blasphemy and apostasy laws which in some countries provided for the death penalty.  Moreover, there was a dramatic increase in hate crimes against religious minorities, facilitated by the ease of expressing hatred online.  France asked what remedies were suggested to guarantee the right to freedom of expression, including avoiding laws that would abusively silence criticism on religion under the pretext of hate speech.  The world of sports was not seen by the public as a high risk environment and yet it was not spared human rights violations.

Interim Remarks

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, clarified that there were remnants of the Sharia law in Tunisia’s legal system.  As for the role of faith-based actors in addressing hate speech and intolerance, he noted that some of those roles had already been identified, namely in the 18 commitments under the Beirut Declaration.  Faith-based actors could use their influence in their communities to speak about human rights and to draw from their traditions to promote and protect human rights.  All faiths spoke to tolerance, human dignity and mutual respect.  One of the key things was the Istanbul process, which encouraged inter-faith dialogue, and the use of education to promote understanding among different communities.  The tools for promoting religious tolerance were already there, but it was now necessary to monitor their implementation.  There was a need for a more regular reporting to see how States upheld their commitments.  The discussion on freedom of expression and freedom of religion was always a complicated one, the Special Rapporteur noted, and recommended a victim-based approach in that respect.  The normative legal debates on freedom of expression vis-à-vis freedom of religion varied to a great extent, but the main guiding principles had to be saving lives.  There were some particularly problematic laws that created victims, which meant that legal frameworks ought to be reviewed quickly.  Finally, the Special Rapporteur underscored the correlation between judicial problems and impunity. 

Interactive Dialogue

Mexico was firmly committed to the protection of children in all spheres.  What were the best mechanisms to engage with international organizations, such as the World Tourism Organization, in disseminating the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights?  Azerbaijan would host the fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in May.  Unfortunately, discrimination and intolerance based on religions were on the rise worldwide and Azerbaijan condemned increased numbers of cases of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.  Belarus shared the concern of the Special Rapporteur on the need to improve protection from discrimination in cases of politicization of religion.  The international community had to combat all forms of exploitation of children, including sexual, and States were called upon to adopt legislative norms banning human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children.

Egypt said that extremists should not be allowed to promote their false ideology and hate speech as they were increasing the risk of terrorism.  The effective implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child required nurturing children in the natural family environment.  Norway welcomed the focus on the matter of blasphemy legislation, as such attacks challenged many peoples’ traditions and values.  Although States might need to react in the event of escalating tension, international law compelled States to pursue a restrained approach.  Poland said it was self-evident that freedom of religion or belief was directly linked with other fundamental freedoms.  How could the international community address the increasing phenomena of limiting religious freedoms?

Algeria noted that it had enshrined religious freedom in its constitution, and it granted the same status to all citizens regardless of their religion or belief.   The best interest of the child should be the fundamental principle in all sporting activities to ensure a healthy and safe environment for children.   Ireland emphasized that the right to freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression were inextricably tied with the concept of self-fulfilment, and had a crucial role to play in a democratic society.  Ireland expressed concern at the continued discrimination, persecution, intimidation and violence that was endured by religious minorities.  Nepal noted that its constitution provided that every person who had faith in religion should have the freedom to profess, practice and protect his or her religion.  Nepal considered that religion was a way of life in a community that fostered inclusion and promoted respect for diversity.

Iran expressed deep concern over the sale and misuse of children and their engagement in prostitution and sexual exploitation, as a kind of modern slavery.  Iran also underlined the positive role that intercultural dialogue could play in combatting extreme violence based on religion.  Bahrain noted that freedom of religion and freedom of expression were interrelated, and emphasized the importance of efforts to develop initiatives and strategies to counter calls for religious hatred.  Bahrain highlighted the creation of the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Co-Existence following the 2017 Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.  China opposed religious extremism, and any discrimination, violence and intolerance resulting from it.  China also noted that it punished any trafficking of children and had a DNA bank to try and combat trafficking.

Georgia regretted that in the occupied regions of Georgia – Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia – freedom of religion was violated on a daily basis.  The intensified installation of large-scale barbwire fences and other artificial obstacles along the occupation line prevented people from accessing churches, cemeteries, and from attending feasts.  Burkina Faso agreed that the obligations stemming from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights had to guide States and civil society in the promotion of religious freedom.  The Government had set up the National Observatory of Religious Facts and it worked in synergy with relevant actors to ensure the exercise of freedom of religion.  Albania stated that the improvement of the legal framework for the protection of children’s rights was one of its priorities.  The coexistence of different religions was an asset in Albania and the Government firmly supported religious minorities in the exercise of their beliefs. 

Greece agreed that freedom of expression and freedom of religion were closely related and mutually reinforcing; freedom of religion was a fundamental value in Greece.  The country was firmly committed to combatting trafficking and sale of children, including in sports.  Ukraine noted that it would not allow the interference into its religious affairs by the Russian Federation, which used the Russian Orthodox Church as a hybrid warfare instrument against Ukraine.  In Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, many parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had disappeared, while its priests were harassed.  Malta stated that the mutually reinforcing nature of freedom of religion and freedom of expression should be acknowledged.  Malta had repealed its blasphemy laws as a step forward in its efforts to protect human rights. 

Cameroon noted that it had developed in 2017 a multi-sectorial plan to combat the worst forms of child labour, including sexual exploitation of children.  It also noted the elaboration of awareness raising campaigns, including discussions on the radio and on television, and in programmes in schools.  Ecuador noted that it protected children and adolescents as a priority group, guaranteeing their protection against all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation.  Ecuador agreed that sporting bodies had a particular responsibility in the face of violations of the rights of children.  Denmark regretted that an increasing number of persons and groups suffered from the abuse of restrictions under reference to blasphemy, “defamation of religion”, anti-apostasy and public order.  The unjustified restriction of freedom of expression involving religion or belief effectively undermined the individual right of freedom of religion or belief.

Montenegro noted that it had succeeded in preserving the rich tradition of inter-religious tolerance that represented a paradigm of mutual tolerance and respect for diversity of identity, as well as significant social capital.  Freedom of religion was one of the most natural civil rights and in a multi-confessional environment such as Montenegro, it must be fully respected.  Slovakia noted that the protection of the freedom of expression in cyberspace was an indispensable part of every democratic order.  Slovakia asked the Special Rapporteur what measures States should consider to confront limitations on freedom of religious belief while fully respecting freedom of expression.  South Africa expressed concern that some States and sporting bodies were actively pursuing the recruitment of players as young as 10 years old, and that children no older than 13 were considered for elite sports academies.  South Africa noted that it was seeking to ensure the elaboration of legally binding instruments to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises and hold them accountable for violations.

Indonesia said that although its Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression and freedom of religion, it also acknowledged that there was agreed limitation to the exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, if the guaranteed rights began contravening with public order, morality, interest, peace and security.  Armenia regretted that despite the fact that international law committed States to prohibit hate speech, there was much evidence of political and religious leaders using messages that constituted incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, as in the case of Azerbaijan.  Cyprus agreed that religion could promote peace and fight violence and discrimination.  Due to Cyprus’ multi-ethnic and multi-religious history, the Government promoted inter-religious harmony, whereas local initiatives used faith to promote human rights, peace and reconciliation.  Bangladesh noted that each society needed to chart its own pathway through different social undercurrents, while defining the interface between different freedoms through the evolving maturity of its polity.  Bangladesh was investing in education and awareness to promote an inclusive, tolerant and pluralist polity.

Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission agreed that Ireland had to adopt a national strategy to protect children from sexual violence, and it supported the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations on developing a sexual education curriculum.  The Commission further voiced concern about the difficulties faced by child victims of sexual abuse in the criminal justice system.  Christian Solidarity Worldwide welcomed the focus of the Special Rapporteur’s report on blasphemy laws, which restricted both freedom of religion and freedom of expression.  The organization called on Cuba and China to cease all harassment of individuals with respect to freedom of religion.

World Evangelical Alliance noted that the Special Rapporteur had described the intrinsic relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of expression.  However, it was noted that in an era of increasing diversity, authorities felt the need to limit either freedom of religion or freedom of expression or both. Alliance Defending Freedom lamented that in many countries blasphemy and apostasy laws were used as tools of repression, intolerance, and fear against religious minority groups.  Alliance Defending Freedom also drew attention to the spread of laws that prohibited hate speech, which too often went beyond their intended scope, and could become the next generation of blasphemy laws. International Humanist and Ethical Union noted that there was an urgent need to combat hate, discrimination and intolerance on the grounds of belief.  However, it was emphasized that blasphemy laws were counterproductive in this quest, as they failed to protect those with minority beliefs and often made minorities a target of hate.

Association for Progressive Communications welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s attention to the online dimension of the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, including the rise of online authoritarianism, which posed a deep threat to these rights.  Artists, journalists and human rights defenders were repeatedly being targeted in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan for expressing their views.  European Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience expressed deep concern about violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief in the Russian Federation.  There was abundant objective and empirical evidence of major violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by the State.  Pan-African Union for Science and Technology expressed concern that Christians and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan were considered second-class citizens, and often were economically marginalized.  Ahmadis in particular were often criminalized for advertising themselves as Muslims.

British Humanist Association welcomed the report on freedom of religion, but noted that it did not address the recent judgment by the European Court of Human Rights that upheld blasphemy restrictions in Austria.  They regretted the precedent set by this case, which suggested that European States could decide there was a previously non-existent right to protection for religious sentiment.  Commission to Study the Organization of Peace said Pakistan was a country where violence and discrimination against women and children were common.  Although laws existed to address child abuse, the State turned a blind eye to slavery, child labour, and early and forced marriage.  Article 19 – International Centre Against Censorship, said trends in the abuse of blasphemy laws mirrored the increase in religious intolerance around the world.  They welcomed the report and its main findings, including that blasphemy laws were not the tool to address religious intolerance.

International Fellowship of Reconciliation regretted that conscientious objection to military service was not included in the report on freedom of religion or belief.  In the Republic of Korea, conscientious objectors were no longer imprisoned, but in Greece, those who refused to participate in military service had to carry out much longer alternative service.  International Association for Democracy in Africa highlighted the oppression of minority rights in Pakistan, and pointed to the rise of violent Islamic groups in the country.  Pakistan was a country where religious extremists ran amok.  Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain Inc stated that the 2013 Bahrain Declaration on religious freedom was devoid of substance.  Members of Bahrain’s Shia community were detained and harassed.  In addition, prisoners had reported being detained in solitary confinement for eight days for possessing items commemorating Ashura. 

Maarij Foundation for Peace and Development asserted that freedom of religion was a principle that supported the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief.  Freedom of religion was noted to be a fundamental human right, and Sudan was commended for the vast space of tolerance inspired by its constitution.  Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik expressed concern over the arrest of Christian converts in Iran.  Grave concern was also expressed over the sale of children and foetuses in Iran, as well as the alarming reports over the sale of underage girls into marriage.

Concluding Remarks

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, in his concluding remarks, noted that there was a range of restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of religion in every region of the world.  Some States had full-on blasphemy laws, which prohibited insulting religions or religious figures.  These could be extended into public order laws, including an increasing number of anti-conversion laws.  Another version of these laws were those that targeted extremism, which sometimes became very broad and could target people from minority faiths.   Mr. Shaheed drew the Council’s attention to cases of atheists being accused of blasphemy.  Regarding anti-hate speech law, the Special Rapporteur emphasized that it was important to make a context-based assessment on whether or not the speech in question was inciting violence or discrimination against persons.  Every State struggled with finding a clear boundary between freedom of expression and freedom of religion.  Mr. Shaheed emphasized that religions were not protected by human rights law, but rather it was persons that were protected by these laws.  Oftentimes, there was a missing requirement of proportionality in freedom of religion laws, with a wide range of punitive punishments, from fines to the death penalty, some of which could be very disproportionate to the crime committed.  The Special Rapporteur underscored the importance of education in terms of people being able to understand each other better.  This included literacy about what was protected and what was not protected.  This also included knowing what different communities stood for, rather than misappropriated ideas about the other.  Digital literacy was also highlighted as a particularly important way to distinguish between fake news and real news: not everything on social media was reliable.  The Special Rapporteur also issued a call for submissions from all stakeholders for his upcoming report on anti-Semitism.



For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC/19/18E