While problems of freedom of religion or belief have been long standing issues around the world, interest in bi-lateral or multi-lateral political engagements to advance the protection of this right in selected countries has exponentially increased in recent years.
Some of the most concrete signs of this trend are the growing number of appointments of special envoys on freedom of religion or belief; the prioritization of religious freedom in foreign policy, including foreign aid programs; the formation of a wide range of special interest groups advocating for freedom of religion or belief; focus on the rights or protection of specific religious or belief groups; and networks or alliances focusing on promoting coordinated political action.
These efforts, however, must be centred on international human rights law (IHRL) and connected to international human rights protection mechanisms to reinforce their primary role. Taking action, be it through interventions or establishing funding schemes, with bias for or against specific groups, or by singling out freedom of religion or belief as “the most important right” are likely to lessen impact of international promotion of the right to freedom of religion or belief for all.
It is important to underline that the right to freedom of religion or belief protects everyone.
Petersen and Marshall propose at least three reasons behind this project. First, the interest in Europe and North America on the perceived worsening situation of Christians in the Middle East; second, concerns about violent religious movements and acts; and third, a growing awareness that religious institutions and beliefs play large roles in political, economic, and social affairs in most of the regions around the world. The insufficiencies of the impact of international human rights protection mechanisms for enforcing human rights, more specifically freedom of religion or belief, could also be a factor worth exploring. The bleak state of accountability in human rights shifts focus on seeking reliance on “soft power” to influence state practice.
The inter-linkages between international human rights protection schemes and these new offices and interest groups remain unmapped. Synergies could be created, for example, by including support for the implementation of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Recommendations, submissions of stakeholder reports, or the enforcement of judgments or findings of international human rights compliance control mechanisms. Moving toward political engagement for the protection of freedom of religion or belief may provide opportunities for engagement with selective issues while ignoring others that may be guided by domestic sensitivities, national interests, and priorities.
There is currently a great deal of ambiguity around these initiatives, officials. and groups.
More interest, more resources, and more engagement could have benefits, such as raising awareness on freedom of religion or belief issues, strengthening the capacity of relevant international human rights bodies, and providing more resources for local projects on freedom of religion or belief. On the contrary, these initiatives could cause damage, by triggering retaliatory action by authoritarian governments as a result of their selective focus or action on behalf of individuals or groups.
But since the interest to engage is there, what are the sine qua non features that any initiative should have, firstly, in order not to do harm, and then to contribute to the advancement of human rights, and specifically freedom of religion or belief for all? Can the interest in the right to freedom of religion or belief serve as a bridge across cultural and ideological divides to reach the common standard already agreed upon in the core human rights instruments? Considering that our world is an increasingly polarized world where freedom of religion or belief also tends to be politicised in a negative way, this becomes increasingly vital.
Promote everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief, not specific groups.
The frame of reference for the work to advance freedom of religion or belief should be the whole catalogue of international human rights law, as it is meant to be understood and implemented. While specific focus on the right to freedom of religion or belief could be helpful to identify issues, violations, and measures that need to be taken for corrective action by states, creating hierarchies among rights is likely to lead to lesser protection.
Promote everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief, not specific groups. At the expense of stating the obvious, it is important to underline that the right to freedom of religion or belief protects everyone, including believers; non-believers; members of the majority religion or belief and of minorities; children and adults; refugees; non-citizens and citizens; women, men and LGBTI+ individuals. Advocacy for specific groups is also likely to be less effective in improving the protection of freedom of religion or belief for all and may backfire in certain cases, especially in contexts where religious or belief groups are already viewed with suspicion as linked to certain states or groups in other countries.
The legitimacy of such initiatives in the eyes of individuals and groups whom they view as “the beneficiaries” in targeted countries is so far unclear. In highly complex contexts, political action centered on, for example, rescuing one person whose human rights are violated or focusing on a particular group, is highly likely to have a negative impact on other groups.
Keep working on establishing a good working methodology based on international human rights law that should be systematic, inclusive, and collaborative. It is easy for such groups to become exclusive groups of like-minded actors. This is not easy and requires constant effort. However, since methodology delivers substance it has a direct impact on the outcome of the work as well as the legitimacy of these actors.
Importantly, working methodologies of these actors lack the systematic consultation mechanisms, via participation of national civil society, including religious or belief communities, built into international human rights compliance control frameworks, such as the UN UPR or the UN treaty bodies. Thus, the benefits of processes that contribute to domestic exchanges and changes are not activated.
Prioritize supporting the effectiveness of international human rights mechanisms. Surely, there would not be any need for the soft power that these initiatives may or may not have if international human rights mechanisms are effective. Therefore, if there is political will to advance freedom of religion or belief, channelling this political will to strengthen international human rights protection mechanisms should be prioritized. The effectiveness of the UN Treaty bodies, as identified in UN General Assembly Resolution 68/268 on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system, the implementation of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and distinct from the UPR mechanism and UN Special Procedures carried out in political bodies of the UN, all need strengthening.
The worst scenario would be that such actors, groups, and platforms of engagement take attention and resources away from the international human rights protection systems. Because we need the international human rights law framework with its mechanisms to work without the need for the “soft power” of another state. We need international human rights mechanisms themselves to have impact.