By Valentina Gasbarri*
ROME (IDN) - Fundamental freedoms and human rights are at the heart of the founding treaties of the European Union (EU) and these are protected under member states’ national legislation. The Charter on Fundamental Rights also sets out the civil, political, economic and social rights of European citizens and all persons resident in the EU.
In November 2012, the Norwegian Nobel Committee acknowledged the commitment and activities of the EU in reconciliation, democracy, promotion of human rights and enlarging the area of peace and stability across the continent, and awarded it the Nobel Peace Prize.
As a universal human right, freedom of religion or belief (FORB) is a priority under the EU human rights policy. The EU defends and promotes freedom of religion or belief as a fundamental right to which everyone is entitled, within and outside the EU. The EU Guidelines on FORB, adopted early in 2013, underline the 28-nation bloc’s strong commitment to the promotion and protection of this universal human right without any discrimination.
The EU Guidelines, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, highlight the far-reaching and profound meaning of the concept of FORB: it is a fundamental right of every human being, encompassing not just the freedom to hold personal thoughts and convictions, but also the ability to practice them individually or with others, publicly or in private in worship, observance, practice and teaching, without fear of intimidation, discrimination, violence or attack. It also includes the freedom to subscribe to different schools of thought within a religion, and to change one’s religion or belief, irrespective of whether it is persons holding non-theistic or atheistic beliefs or others who do not profess any religion or belief.
In recent years critical comments about religious dogmas or beliefs, perceived by their adherents as being blasphemous or insulting, have sometimes led to worldwide protests (for example, the Danish cartoons involving Prophet Mohammed).
Freedom of religion or belief is intrinsically linked to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association and assembly as well as to other human rights and fundamental freedoms all of which contribute towards the building of pluralistic, tolerant, and democratic societies. Indeed, freedom of religion or belief and the freedom of expression are interdependent, interrelated and mutually reinforcing rights, protecting all persons – not religions or beliefs in themselves – and protecting also the right to express opinions on any or all religions and beliefs.
Censorship and restrictions on the publication and distribution of literature or of websites related to religion or belief are common violations of both of these freedoms, and impair the ability of individuals and communities to practice their religion or belief. Limitations to the right to express opinions on religion or belief are a source of great vulnerability for people belonging to religion or belief minorities, but also affect majorities, not least persons holding non-traditional religious views.
Taken together, freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression play an important role in the fight against all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.
Most common violations of FORB
There are several different issues relating to freedom of religion or belief across the world. Among the most prominent examples are: apostasy, legal persecutions, violence, discrimination and blasphemy.
Apostasy: Converting away from one’s religion in certain countries is subject to legal sanction. In others, it can lead to discrimination and violation of human rights. In some countries, such as Uzbekistan, actions that may lead to people converting are banned.
Legal Recognition. Some religious minority communities are actively persecuted and are not formally recognised or allowed to practice freely. This also affects their rights to own land or build places of worship or educate their children in their faith.
Violence. Large numbers of individuals all over the world are subjected to violence at the hands of state authorities, extremist groups, their communities or families because of their religious affiliation or their attempts to manifest or change their religion or beliefs.
Manifesting religious belief and anti-racism. Individuals should not suffer discrimination either because of their race or their religious belief. Discrimination on the grounds of race or religion is prohibited under international law. Countries that have ratified these instruments must provide legal protection against such discrimination. In some cases, race and religion are perceived to be closely aligned, e.g. Jewish people and Judaism, Sikhs and Sikhism, but this is irrelevant to human rights law. Individuals should not suffer discrimination either because of their race or their religious belief.
Blasphemy. There is no agreed international definition of blasphemy, but blasphemy offences usually range from insulting a religion and/or its adherents to hate speech. The EU considers that neither the death penalty nor physical punishment can ever be a reasonable or proportionate penalty for blasphemy.
European instrument for democracy
The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) is a concrete expression of EU’s commitment to support and promote democracy and human rights through its external action in third countries. In force since 2007, and embedded with an annual budget worth 150 million euros, the EIDHR currently supports more than 1,500 projects in over 130 countries worldwide. These projects, mainly implemented by NGOs, support concrete changes on the ground and to give a breath of fresh air to scattered civil society and to victims of violations and abuses.
EIDHR addresses all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It supports good governance in all of its components including in environmental terms. Delivering pragmatic projects with concrete results and helping to link relief, rehabilitation and development, the EIDHR is also integral to the EU work on poverty alleviation, inclusive and sustainable development, conflict prevention and resolution, and reaffirming the link between development and human rights.
Supported by the EU, the project Strengthening Accountability for Human Rights Violations Against Religious Minority Groups was implemented in Indonesia in order to address the recent spate of violence against religious groups. Although reformation has succeeded in introducing a human rights protection system, in practice groups who are seen to be ‘deviant’ from the mainstream are vulnerable to discrimination that then can culminate in attacks.
The EU action elicited the support of religious leaders and state officials in addressing recent attacks against minority religious groups, linking them to the long-standing impunity for cases of religious persecution, advocating for remedies for victims, in order to strengthen religious tolerance in the future. This project provided new tools to victims groups and their advocates to document and conduct public outreach on victim’s experiences and rights. It also brought organizations (from different religious backgrounds) and experts with media skills together with human rights groups and victims groups, facilitating an exchange that will result in the strengthening of citizen-based advocacy on victim’s issues and rights religious-based violations and freedoms.
Minority Rights Group obtained support from the European Union in 2008 for a major programme on Securing Protection and Promoting Fundamental Freedoms of Vulnerable Minorities in Iraq and Somalia. For the following three years, they worked with partner organisations in Iraq and Somalia/Somaliland and Kenya to build capacity on human rights and minority rights, monitoring and research, communications and advocacy on abuses of minority rights. Iraq and Somalia presented starkly different, complex configurations of unresolved political/institutional conflicts, lethal in-fighting and positioning along identity (religious, ethnic or clan) lines. For both contexts the major objective was the same: to strengthen the monitoring and advocacy capacity of civil society organisations and human rights activists representing vulnerable minorities and promote their effective public participation at local, national and international level.
*Valentina Gasbarri is a Junior Expert of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). She has a strong background in East-Asia geo-strategic relations, development issues and global security studies. [IDN-InDepthNews – August 10, 2014]
Top photo: Woman with hijab | Credit: Wikimedia Commons