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COMBATTING GLOBAL RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE

29 Dec

the implementation of Human Rights Council resolution 16/18

by Marc Limon, Nazila Ghanea and Hilary Power

It is almost impossible to turn on the news today without witnessing scenes of hatred, violence and intolerance perpetrated in the name of religion or belief. The march of ISIL across Syria and Iraq, with associated reports of gross and systematic violations of human rights, may be an extreme example of such hatred, but it comes against a background of heightened religious hostility and discrimination in virtually every part of the world. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, violence and discrimination against religious groups by governments and rival faiths have reached new heights in all regions except the Americas. This bleak picture is supported by the findings of the latest report on religious freedom by the US State Department, which concluded that 2013 saw ‘the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory,’ with millions of individuals from all faiths ‘forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs’ in ‘almost every corner of the globe.’

In the face of such trends, it is clear that the fight against religious intolerance and discrimination must be a key political priority for the international community, and in particular the UN and its Human Rights Council.

The main UN global policy framework for combatting religious intolerance, stigmatisation, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief is set down in Council resolution 16/18. Resolution 16/18 was adopted, with much fanfare, in March 2011 and hailed by stakeholders from all regions and faiths as a turning point in international efforts to confront religious intolerance. After more than five decades of failure, UN member states had, it was hoped, at last come together to agree a common, consensus-based approach and practical plan of action.

Almost four years on, and against the aforementioned backdrop of heightened religious hostility, UN consensus around the ‘16/18 framework’ is at breaking point. Rather than working together to implement the 16/18 action plan, states have returned to pre-2011 arguments over the nature of the problem, the correct role of the international community, and whether the solution to intolerance lies in strengthening the enjoyment of fundamental human rights or in setting clearer limits thereon.

These divisions have re-emerged, in large part, because of conceptual confusion among policymakers about what implementation of resolution 16/18 means and what it entails. Linked to (and indeed flowing from) this conceptual opacity, states – especially states from the Western Group (WEOG) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – argue over whether resolution 16/18 is being effectively implemented or not and, if not, who is to blame.

A new Universal Rights Group policy report aims to help put the 16/18 framework ‘back on track’ by cutting through the political rhetoric to understand the different positions of key actors and how to bridge them, and by providing an impartial assessment of levels of implementation.

Key findings and conclusions in the report include:

* The prevention of discrimination on grounds of, inter alia, race and religion, and the protection of minorities, were two of the four priority human rights issues chosen by member states at time of the establishment of the UN (1946).

* From that time until the early 1960s, the UN’s human rights system addressed racial and religious discrimination/intolerance as joint and interconnected issues. However, in 1962 the UN decided to decouple its consideration of the two discriminations.

* This decision facilitated the rapid adoption of a new UN convention on the elimination of racial discrimination (1965). However, consideration of religious intolerance was shunted to the diplomatic ‘slow lane.’ After long and difficult negotiations, the UN eventually adopted a (soft law) declaration in 1981 – a declaration that, today, is largely forgotten.

* From 1946 to the turn of the century, UN policy to combat religious intolerance was notably ineffective. Yet the international community was at least united around a single approach. That changed in the years after 1999 when deepening OIC concern over Islamaphobia (especially in the context of 9/11), together with a Western shift in emphasis away from combatting religious intolerance and towards promoting freedom of conscience, led to a split in the UN policy architecture – a split that remains with us today.

* Against this unpromising background, in March 2011 a group of four states – Pakistan, Turkey, the UK and the US – tabled a text at the Human Rights Council designed to heal divisions, reconcile the positions of East and West, and lay down a workable plan of action to at last confront and challenge global religious intolerance. That text became resolution 16/18.

* When looking at the implementation of resolution 16/18, expectations of the degree to which it is capable of resulting in policy shifts in UN member states should be tempered by an understanding that the primary political impetus behind resolution 16/18 was international rather than domestic.

* Nevertheless, resolution 16/18, with its in-built action plan and associated implementation mechanism (the Istanbul Process), does provide a useful and, in theory, workable framework for combatting religious intolerance. While it is difficult to identify a direct causal relationship between resolution 16/18 and concrete policy shifts at national level, it is possible to identify a number of domestic improvements in-line with parts of the action plan. A good example is the clear improvement, since 2011, in the speed and sophistication with which political and religious leaders speak-out against acts of intolerance.

* Despite these positive steps, Pew Research Center data shows a significant worsening of levels of religious intolerance in almost every part of the world over the past decade.

* An analysis of the underlying causes of this situation reveals a strong empirical relationship between levels of religious intolerance, levels of freedom of religion and levels of freedom of expression. States that place high restrictions on freedom of religion also tend to place high restrictions on freedom of expression, and in states where both these core freedoms are restricted, incidences of religious intolerance tend, on average, to be far higher.

* However, URG’s analysis also shows that promoting respect for freedom of religion and freedom of expression is not enough on its own. If states are to strike a blow against intolerance, they must also take a range of supplementary (and complementary) steps to strengthen policy (in line with resolution 16/18).

Policy Recommendations
The report ends by proposing a set of recommendations designed to ‘re-energise’ the 16/18 process and thereby strengthen the international community’s ability to effectively respond to rising intolerance and discrimination. Recommendations include:

* States – especially EU and OIC states – should cooperate to dismantle the artificial divide that currently separates the UN’s work on promoting respect for freedom of religion from its work on combatting religious intolerance. In the medium- to long-term, this would mean agreeing on a single, coherent policy covering the mutually interdependent issues of freedom of religion, religious discrimination and religious intolerance;

* Linked with this point, states should avoid a return to the initiative on ‘defamation of religions,’ which achieved little beyond the polarisation of East and West. They should also avoid establishing new instruments or mechanisms on religious discrimination or intolerance in the absence of a solid evidential base showing that such measures would help;

* Because arguments over implementation are central to the current difficulties faced by the 16/18 process, it would be useful for relevant Council mechanisms, especially the Special Procedures, to undertake an independent and impartial analysis of steps taken by states, religious leaders and civil society, together with related best practice;

* Better use can and should be made of the UPR process and Treaty Body dialogues to promote implementation of the 16/18 action plan and to report on progress;

* States should ‘re-energise’ the Istanbul Process by agreeing in advance on a schedule of future meetings – a series that would allow all parts of the 16/18 action plan to be addressed; and

* The format of Istanbul Process meetings should be reformed, so that for each meeting a geographically balanced group of states, religious community representatives and civil society leaders are invited to present information about their national experiences, challenges faced and future plans.

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