The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, more commonly referred to as the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is a fundamental right of every human being. For a very long time FoRB has not been a very fashionable human right. At the same time, however, violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief have increased in number and intensity. With the adoption in June in the Council of ‘EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief’, this fundamental human right finally gets the recognition it deserves. Much now needs to be done to translate the good intentions of the Guidelines into actions which make a difference.
Everyone who is an adherent of a religion or holds a belief can attest that this is a fundamental part of personal identity and sometimes comes before and above everything else. Even those who do not profess a religion or belief would agree that this is probably an important part of who they are. For this reason, freedom of religion or belief was among the first human rights to be recognized, in Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A right under attack
According to many human rights organizations and research institutions such as Pew Forum, violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief are on the rise and violence against believers is increasing. This is particularly the case in Arab Spring countries such as Egypt and in some parts of Africa, such as Nigeria, where religiously motivated attacks take place on a daily basis. In both cases mostly Christians are targeted. The Pew Forum researchers found that, in 2011, Christians were harassed by national, provincial or local governments (government hostility) or by individuals or groups in society (social hostility) in 105 countries, Muslims in 101 countries, and Jews in 69 countries. The same study1 found that “because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, more than 5.1 billion people (74%) were living in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.”
About three years ago, after a series of brutal and bloody attacks on Christians in Iraq and Egypt, Foreign Affairs Ministers of the EU Member States realized something had to be done. At the same time, two MEPs, Peter van Dalen and Dennis de Jong, set up a group of likeminded MEPs on freedom of religion or belief. This group has since become a working group with cross-party support. Both at the level of the Council and in the Parliament lobbying began for EU Guidelines on FoRB and included many events, parliamentary questions, resolutions and even manifestations.
An EU response
In June of this year the EU foreign ministers adopted the ‘EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief’, after several months of negotiations. The Guidelines aim to protect those who profess a religion or belief, but also those who do not. They expressly include the right to manifest one’s religion or belief, “individually or in community with others, in public or private, through worship, observance, practice and teaching”. Furthermore the Guidelines cover the right to change or leave one’s belief.
The FoRB Guidelines are founded on the existing body of universal and European human rights standards and legislation. They set out the principles of when and how the EU and its Member States can and should act. The FoRB Guidelines include tools for action, such as public condemnation, demarches and demands for reform of discriminatory or inflammatory legislation, but also the use of financial instruments. The adoption of the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief is a victory and a reason for hope for those who are harassed and persecuted. However, at this stage the Guidelines are just fine words. The European External Action Service (EEAS) should now take the lead to provide training to EU and Member State diplomatic personnel and policy makers on how to implement the Guidelines and apply them on a day-to-day basis. The European Parliament should follow the implementation of the Guidelines closely. They can make a real difference if implemented effectively and consistently.
The EU should stand up for the right to freedom of religion or belief. It should not tolerate harassment and persecution of any individual or group, solely for their belief. It is now time to turn these words into action!