Q&A on Freedom of Religion and Belief with Luisa Ragher

Freedom of Religion and Belief: From your perspective, is this term experienced in practice in the European Area?

The EU sees human rights as universal and interdependent. In the EU, the right to religious freedom is enshrined in article 10 of the EU charter of fundamental rights. Article 9 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights grants freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The European Union has a strong legislative framework that ensures that freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief is underpinned by domestic legislation in all our 28 Member States. As we know that implementation of legislation and public policies are always a challenge, we are constantly monitoring our performance. The Fundamental Rights Agency closely monitors how persons belonging to religious groups, in particular Jews and Muslims, face discrimination, hate speech and hate crime within the EU and together with the European Commission ensure that these issues are addressed at the national level.

In its external action, the EU advocates for freedom of religion or belief for all individuals, and we try to ensure that that religion is not invoked to curtail other human rights. In this regard, the EU has consolidated Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) as one of its human rights priorities with the adoption of the guidelines on the promotion and protection of FoRB in 2013. Our areas of focus on FoRB are to combat discrimination and violence against individuals on the basis of their religion or belief, to promote the right to manifest religion or beliefs and the right to change or not to have religion, to support human rights defenders and civil society working on this issue, to combat hate speech as well as the criminalization of blasphemy.

Give us an example of the progress made in the last years in the battle against the discrimination on religious affairs. 

While human rights violations are widespread in many parts of the world, and civil society faces a severe crackdown in many countries, the picture is not all bleak. We have witnessed some success on the battle against violence and discrimination on religious grounds, thanks to the action of governments willing to implement human rights reforms, and advocacy from civil society organisations and human rights defenders, national human rights institutions, UN agencies and the international community.

For instance, in the last year several individuals who were jailed because of their religion or beliefs have been released from detention, after concerns raised by the international community. We are also witnessing how some countries are trying to liberalise their legislation on religious freedom or are moving away from a strict implementation of religious principles in their legislation (e.g. seeking equality in inheritance law between men and women).

It is worth noting that some religious actors and non-believers remain strong human rights advocates across the world, for instance by providing assistance and care to migrants and asylum seekers in distress, or by leading efforts of inter-faith dialogue to tackle sectarian conflicts.

Does the rise of populism in politics influence directly the freedom of religion and in what ways?

In our daily work, we witness how FoRB is contested around the world. Whether they are perpetrated by non-state actors or governments who are increasingly curtailing human rights, the consequences for victims are severe. Believers and non-believers in many parts of the world continue to suffer from violence, persecution, and discrimination (even for instance in access to public services, education, and health). It is worth highlighting that violence can also be perpetrated under the pretext of a religious prescription or practice (for instance violence against women and girls including “honour” killings, female genital mutilation, early and forced marriages or violence against persons based on their sexual orientation or gender identity). Religion is also often instrumentalised to legitimate violence. We have seen it happen before, and yet it is happening again – in spite of our international commitments and our national laws.

Religious people and non-believers also experience hurdles in manifesting their religion in public and private and have been attacked in their places of worship. Criminalisation of apostasy and blasphemy is another fundamental human rights violation that many individuals face.

The current political context is challenging. We are often faced with situations were individuals are being persecuted due to their religious beliefs (or for being non-religious) in conflicts environments where the institutional framework of the State is too weak to address the human rights violations. Humanitarian relief and state-building measures have to be at the core of our action in these contexts. Finding common agreements in the multilateral fora is also challenging. As the European Union, we believe that working together is the only way forward and everyone who wants to work along this line knows that it can count on the EU for it. To fight both emerging and long-standing threats, we should continue to make use of our existing diplomatic tools while also identifying opportunities for new coalitions and partnerships.

Taking into account your experience at EEAS so far, at an international level, which region do you think that still faces difficulties in the freedom of religion?

Violations of freedom of religion or belief can be observed worldwide, with different degrees of intensity. We see how individuals from all faiths as well as non-believers are targeted around the world due to their religion or belief. Often majorities in one country are minorities elsewhere. For instance, we have seen during the last year an increase of attacks against places of worship, whether it’s against Muslims in a mosque in Christchurch, against Christians in churches in Sri Lanka or against Jews in synagogues in Pittsburgh. In all of these cases we have reacted publicly to condemn the violence and to show our solidarity with the victims.

This is why the EU advocates for the promotion and protection of FoRB globally. For this endeavour, we have several tools at our disposal. EU Delegations around the world monitor FoRB violations, including through their regular contacts with faith based actors. Subsequently, the EU raises its concerns for human rights violations through demarches, statements or during political dialogues with third countries. We also engage with partners across the world in multilateral fora to find common solutions, in particular in the UN, and our development funds finance projects of inclusive education and interfaith dialogue.

Over the past years, we have raised our concerns for FoRB violations in our human rights dialogues with countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Central, South and South East Asia, as well as countries of the Western Balkans and of the “Eastern Partnership”.

Our efforts are coordinated between EEAS headquarters and our EU Delegations around the world, in joint efforts with the EU Special Representative for Human Rights and the Special Envoy for FoRB outside the EU. In order to improve our understanding of FoRB and our capacities to act, in-house trainings have been strengthened over the last years. To note that in the last European Parliament legislature, the EU institutions worked closely with the European Parliament Intergroup on FoRB.

While we have achieved results, we cannot afford complacency. Liaising daily with NGOs, Member States, and MEPs allows us to listen to new suggestions on how to constantly improve our work on defending FoRB.

Is education an important factor for the new generations to learn respect the others? Do you think you should name another? 

Our message is very clear: violence and discrimination based on religious grounds must stop, perpetrators must be held accountable and victims should be rehabilitated.

Violence has not only to be condemned but also prevented. Preventing violence and discrimination is essential to obtain long term results. Education is without any doubt a fundamental aspect of prevention. For instance, we are aware as how in some countries, textbooks are used in schools to foster discriminatory messages and curtails diversity. Accordingly, the EU has tried to address this issue in its development cooperation. In our political dialogues, we ask countries to stop discriminatory practices in the education system when we identify them.

Preventing discrimination and violence and building respect within societies is also sustained by other policies which tackle impunity and seek reconciliation. We can think of our commitment to financing and supporting transitional justice programmes as well as providing assistance for reforms of justice systems and of the security sector around the world for instance.

Share with us your thoughts regarding the initiatives the governments around the world and the EU need to take in order to go further and make the freedom of religion and belief reality.

Beyond local and regional situations, the work for human rights is and must be a global effort. As EU, we believe that the United Nations is the natural forum to advance and protect human rights. Global rules and international agreement should not be perceived as a constraint for some, but as a protection for all. We also work actively with other regional organisations such as the OSCE and we firmly believe in the importance of regional human rights mechanisms.

The Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee in New York are pivotal in our collective efforts to promote freedom of religion and belief. Through those fora we have supported countries that wish to better guarantee their citizens’ freedoms, and highlighted egregious violations in need of urgent attention.

For many years the European Union has led strong resolutions focused on freedom of religion and belief in both the Human Rights Council and UNGA Third Committee. Last March, the EU led the FoRB resolution at the Human Rights Council, which renewed the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB for a further 3 years. The work of the UN Special Procedures is fundamental to monitor human rights violations around the world as well as to assess and advise governments on how to improve protections including through legislation.

Far from being static, multilateralism and UN mechanisms allows us every year to promote and protect FoRB through new tools. The establishment in 2019 of an International Day against religious persecution (22 August) represented a good opportunity for all of us to publicly show our commitment to tackling violence against believers and non-believers.

Several EU Member States, and non-European countries have been strengthening their FoRB diplomacy by creating mandates of Special Envoys for FoRB or by creating focal points in their ministries of Foreign affairs. This has allowed a stronger diplomatic coordination to discuss FoRB violations and identify joint actions of public or silent diplomacy.

Finally, defending FoRB requires investment into educating about religion and belief – and an openness to engaging civil society actors whether faith-based and to their contribution to the overall challenge of how we live together – here in Europe and beyond. With this aim, the High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini launched the Global Exchange on Religion in Society on 6 September.

The ‘Religion in Society’ approach recognises religion as an important social force throughout the world. It emphasises the importance of engaging religious or faith-based actors alongside other relevant and non-religious or more secular actors, to address the issues of living together in a globalised world. Unlike other approaches, which privilege the position of belief and generally expect participants to ‘declare’ a faith identity as a condition of entry, the “Religion in Society” approach more easily takes into account secular, humanist, or non-religious positions. Concretely, the suggested exchange platform will aim to connect and empower community voices, who as active practitioners in their respective (majority/minority) local settings are navigating issues like shared citizenship, belonging, and management of cultural diversity.

Head of Human Rights Division , European External Action Service (E.E.A.S.).