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The concept of “human rights” has been stretched thin by human rights activists, academics, intergovernmental human rights institutions, human rights courts and governments.  At the same time, rising numbers of people around the world are suffering from restrictions on their basic freedoms as the freedom of religion, in particular, is increasingly violated.  These two trends are not coincidental; they are, in fact, related in ways that warrant close attention.

The fact that the idea of human rights has lost focus and has been seriously exploited by actors with political agendas is obvious, but it has gained a modicum of legitimacy and acceptance recently.  The United States government established a “Commission on Unalienable Rights” in 2019 to examine the problem, which has led to a vigorous public debate.  Given its classical liberal foundations and tradition of constitutional protections of  basic freedoms, discomfort with human rights inflation in American thinking comes as no surprise.  But it is highly significant that the European Parliament’s Directorate-General for External Policies, the previous year, examined how the “expansion of the concept of human rights impacts on human rights promotion and protection.”  The consultation resulted in the conclusion that “attempts to develop new rights or to change the nature of human rights has caused the system to be diluted and is continuously undermining the protection of fundamental rights.”

The study found that some actors have sought to use human rights mechanisms to address issues that go beyond the scope of human rights.  More and more problems are labeled as human rights problems, and there are more and more human rights standards, treaties, “high level” international human rights officials, international mechanisms and courts, all of which offer a fertile ground for academics, lawyers and the mainline human rights community, that is, well-intentioned people seeking solutions to important problems.

However, there is a darker side to this story; human rights inflation is also driven by states that understand the weak leverage international law and political pressure have against their own oppressive policies. Promoting human rights inflation is a tactic to violate human rights with impunity.  The Parliament’s study found that in particular, collective, “Third Generation Rights,” such as the putative “Right to Development,” are tools promoted and used by undemocratic states “seeking to undermine human rights through expansion” with several goals; UN agenda cluttering, resource absorption, weakening of human rights scrutiny or accountability mechanisms, diversion of attention from existing human rights or from their own abuse.”

Indeed, there is a strong overlap between the main abusers of freedom of religion, and states that promote “Third Generation Rights” and United Nations human rights resolutions and mechanisms that conflate human rights concepts with their own ideological agendas.

According to Willy Fautré, the director of Human Rights Without Frontiers and a leading expert on freedom of religion, States are divided to several categories: “Communist/totalitarian atheist states,” including China (which incarcerates over a million people because of their Muslim religion), Cuba, North Korea, Eritrea, and Vietnam, persecute followers of all religions.

Authoritarian states, identifying themselves with one religion, typically violate the rights of members of religious minorities. Russia has made it illegal for 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses to practice their faith and some other former Soviet states with Muslim majority populations persecute members of minority religious groups.

A number of countries with Islam as a state religion, such as Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Algeria and others persecute for banning Ahmadis, Bahá’is, Christians, and Jews.  Muslims themselves, in such states, are typically deprived of the right to change their religion, a tragedy affecting 1.3 billion people.  Another very serious case of state discrimination is in Myanmar, where the Buddhist political establishment persecutes Rohingya Muslims.

The regimes of all of these countries see the freedom of religion as a threat to their authority and power.  All focus their human rights diplomacy on promoting the doctrine of the “indivisibility and equality of all human rights” ,which claims that rights like the right to state-funded employment counseling are as paramount as freedom of religion.  All show-off their social programs and entitlements as evidence that they honor human rights.  All denigrate the notion that defending basic liberties like the freedom of religion, which allows individuals to form a moral orientation informing a comprehensive array of life choices, should be a priority for states and for the international community.  Some, like China and Cuba, have actively, transparently and successfully campaigned to water down processes that would focus on their own violations. They have promoted thematic UN human rights mechanisms that have little or nothing to do with human rights while opposing or weakening country specific mandates which focus on actual violations of human rights.

European countries have done little to stand up to the debasement of human rights, and are  presented often, along with undemocratic states, partner drivers of the trend, while freedom of religion is far from secure in Europe.   The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is among the most expansive in the world.  A number of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights show a tendency to create new human rights, like the right to be free from noise pollution, while others degrade religious freedom by, for example, upholding laws banning wearing some religious clothing.  Others have upheld laws under which citizens are prosecuted for criticizing religions, which are essentially blasphemy laws defending a politically correct secularism.

The mounting threats to the freedom of religion around the world cast a dark shadow on our future.  We need more discussion and more public information about how we, in liberal democracies, should best defend the freedom of religion, and human rights in general.  There is a critical need to shore up the concept of human rights, so that it can  function as a north star for those seeking freedom and democracy.

Former Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation of Human Rights 1993-2007.  He is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and the author of The Debasement of Human Rights (Encounter Books, 2018).