Protection of Religious Freedom: a new operational set of tools
Action and more effective mechanisms are urgently needed to fight more effectively the increasing violations of freedom of religion in the world. The EEAS is now about to be offered a new set of tools.
Enhancement of efforts towards marked improvements in respect of the right to freedom of religion and belief in the world should be one of the top priorities for EU initiatives concerning human rights in its external action.
Such a right is commonly recognised as one of the most central amongst the human rights guaranteed at the international level. As a matter of fact, it has been rightly underlined that without due respect for it, a society cannot truly define itself as ‘free’. Action and more effective mechanisms are urgently needed because violations of freedom of religion by some governments and non-state actors, although with different degrees of gravity and intensity, are increasing in a number of countries of the world.
It is common knowledge that the EEAS has been invited to urgently draft guidelines and is now in the final stages of preparing Guidelines (Toolkit) to Promote and Protect the Enjoyment of Religious Freedom, aimed at providing the staff in the EU institutions, the EU Member States’ capitals, EU Delegations, Representations and Embassies with an operational set of tools to be used in dealings with third-countries, as well as with Churches and international and civil society organizations, in order to protect all individual believers and religious minorities within its external action.
Among the cases to be monitored, reported and countered by the EEAS are the following: killings and violence; prohibition, confiscation and destruction of places of worship and religious publications; prohibition of religious training and education; prohibition of public or private religious ceremonies; prohibition on wearing religious objects or symbols; imprisonment because of teaching of one’s religion; punishments for upholding truths of one’s faith (in some cases even for simply worshipping, including in private places); abuse of defamation and blasphemy laws and, more generally speaking, undue restriction of religious expression; prohibition of conversion to another faith; forced conversion; requirement of designating one’s own religion on passports or national identity documents; discrimination in the access to the State public service as public servants; and last but not least, lack of recognition of the legal personality of churches and religious communities.
In order to monitor the aforesaid cases the Guidelines should provide EU officials, Churches and International and Civil Society organizations with the following elements: an annual roadmap so as to orientate the actions of the EEAS in protecting religious freedom worldwide; to prevent the expulsion of religiously persecuted individuals seeking asylum in any EU Member State, as already decided in some European Court of Human Rights cases and as rightly proposed by the UNHCR; to insert a conditionality clause in any agreement with third-countries and to further enhance the principle of “more for more and less for less” when granting financial aid to third-countries and assisting emerging democracies to apply ‘soft diplomacy’ including support to all social and cultural projects which aim at developing all regions of the countries, in particular those where religious minorities are disadvantaged; to collect reliable data and share information with other EU institutions as for example, in migration and asylum in relation to DG Home; or trade agreements with respect to DG Trade, etc.; and providing special training for EEAS staff and of EU delegations to better understand the role of religions in international affairs.
It is also advisable for the EEAS to possess the requested immediate reaction mechanism for an emergency situation in which violations of religious freedom occur; not only appointing a special rapporteur on freedom of religion but also upgrading his status to an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom on the US model. The EEAS can help to promote the establishment of an International Investigating Commission under UN authority to prosecute the criminals of religious genocides. Finally the EEAS should maintain the current terminological consensus used at international level in the EEAS Guidelines on religious freedom – this would facilitate a better understanding amongst the EU and third countries.
The above mentioned elements may eventually be crystallized in the approved document on the Guidelines and, although it will not be legally binding, they will nevertheless represent a strong political signal that the issues of freedom of religion and belief are priorities for the EU. Thus, while aiming to overcome the ideological tendency to see freedom of religion (as well as freedom of conscience) as ‘problematic’, and religion as a ‘danger’ or ‘disturbance’ to society, it will assess certain situations as they emerge and enable the EEAS to engage in the most pragmatic way.
Dr Joe Vella Gauci