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The Commonwealth Initiative for the Freedom of Religion or Belief (CIFoRB) marks Human Rights Day 10 December 2016 with an exclusive interview with UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Mr Ahmed Shaheed.

Ahmed Shaheed © UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

1. Human Rights Day 2016 is all about standing up for someone else’s rights. 
How do you think people around the world and of course parliamentarians can best stand up for human rights and in particular the Freedom of Religion or Belief?

Empathy and solidarity are core values that drive the global human rights movement and embody its commitment to the universality of human rights - standing up for someone else’s rights asserts these commitments. And one of the important ways we can stand up for the rights of others is to speak out against the violation of their rights - to give voice to the voiceless, to ensure that those whose rights are being violated do not suffer in silence or in solitude or do not remain unheard of or unknown. Time and time again, I have met victims of rights violations who say how valuable it was for them to know that their plight had been noted by others, that people had recognized their humanity and dignity and had expressed solidarity - the very humanity and dignity that the perpetrators seek to deny to their victims. Parliamentarians can be particularly powerful voices in speaking truth to power, in championing the rights of those whose rights are being abused, in drawing attention to the plight of specific victims in national parliaments, in creating awareness in their constituencies, in building transnational coalitions of parliamentarians or the like-minded, in calling out perpetrators of human rights abuses, and in supporting human rights defenders. Giving a voice to the voiceless and asserting solidarity with victims can be particularly important in cases where the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is being violated. What is sought in such repression is not merely the suppression of the external manifestations of certain ideas and beliefs, but the elimination of the belief itself. Therefore the victimisation can be particularly nefarious and dehumanising. Moreover, religious dissent can be suppressed not just by state agents who abuse the legal rights of victims, but by society through ostracism and by family who might disown or indeed punish them; and therefore the assertions of empathy and solidarity can be particularly valuable for victims of violations of their freedom of religion rights.

2. Alongside #Standup4HumanRights, #HumanRightsDay,  CIFoRB will be promoting: #Article18Matters.
Can you explain why Article 18 is a crucial part of the UN’s Declaration of the 30 listed Human Rights especially regarding one's own thoughts and conscience?

Freedom of religion has been described as one of the most precious rights because it protects the freedom for an individual to hold identity-shaping, profound convictions about the deeper meaning of life, and to engage in conviction-based practices either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private.  It is also a foundational right that sets the pluralistic context in which both individuals and communities can flourish. Read with Article 2 of the UDHR, it embodies the principles of equality, liberty and dignity upon which the human rights framework is constructed. Article 18 protects, as a non-derogable right, the human right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief;  but it does not protect claims to privilege based on religion or belief, or those that conflict with the fundamental rights of others, or coercive practices. The freedom of religion thus also requires the freedom from religion. Indeed, without the latter, the former would be devoid of substance. 

The inclusion of ‘thought and conscience’ along with religion and belief is vital to ensure the broad scope of the right protected by Article 18. It affirms that a belief does not require a theological foundation for protection under Article 18. Thus, Article 18 protects, on an equal footing, the rights of both the religious and the non-religious, including atheists, humanists, free-thinkers and the unconcerned. As the Human Rights Committee points out, the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief covers theistic, non-theistic, atheistic, and non-religious beliefs.

Conscience in this context represents a person’s moral identity, often but not always, originating from a religion or belief. The conscientious positions held by a person usually also reflect socialization processes within the family, community norms and practices, existing religious or non-religious values in the society, and other moral factors to which that person has been exposed.  And, as with religious beliefs, the right to conscientious beliefs would be pointless without the right to also act in conformity with one’s beliefs or conscientious positions.

The broad construction of Article 18 is important because religions or beliefs often assert universal moral validity and therefore clash with other absolute claims to truth--all such claims of course enjoy protection on an equal footing under Article 18. Thus it is important to specify that protections under the freedom of religion apply broadly-- to all beliefs that are genuinely held and relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; and attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and do not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

3. Many people question freedom of religion or belief and see it as a controversial right. Why do you think this is and what might be done to counter this perception?

The freedom of religion or belief is widely misunderstood. Sometimes it is conflated with privilege, making demands on its behalf that amount to discrimination or intolerance, defended on grounds of deeply held convictions rather than on the basis of the human rights framework. But since religions often appeal to an authority beyond the temporal, strong emotive responses can be generated on that basis. A related issue is the perception, often false, that the freedom of religion is mobilized only in defence of co-religionists. A second source of confusion is the failure to recognise that what Article 18 protects are individuals and their rights, exercised either alone or in community with others, but not religions or beliefs or ideas—not what one believes but how one comes to believe them. Article 18 thus cannot be invoked to shield ideas, beliefs and religions from criticism. A third source of confusion, though not unique to Article 18 has to do with permissible limitations which may be imposed as deemed necessary to protect public safety, order, health, morals or fundamental rights or freedoms of others in a democratic society. As the ICCPR states, Article 18 is a non-derogable right, and these limitations can be invoked only in regard to the manifestation of one’s beliefs.  There can be no limitation on a person's right to change, adopt, have or indeed not have a religion or belief (forum internum). Moreover, even in the case of the permissible limitations on the public manifestation of one’s beliefs or religion, they must meet a strict three-part test, where the limitation must be clearly defined in law; must serve a legitimate aim in a democratic society; and be proportional to the harm that it seeks to prevent. Hence, limitations must be the exception and be very narrow, and the right itself cannot be destroyed.

One important way to address such misconceptions is to promote more public discourse and open dialogue. Rather than shy away from engaging with religious freedom issues, international institutions and international organisations should invest more in both religious literacy and religious freedom literacy—so as to support claims based on the human right to freedom of religion or belief as opposed to arguments based on privilege. At the same time, mainstream human rights and development organisations should be sensitised that the right to freedom of religion or belief is a foundational right that can set the context for the realization of a pluralistic democratic order and open several pathways to economic, political and societal flourishing as many empirical studies have demonstrated. It is also important to acknowledge that rights can and do clash, as competing claims based on liberty and equality frequently do, in relation to conviction-based practices, and the principle of reasonable accommodation must be resorted to in order to protect the enjoyment of all human rights equally.

 4. Looking around the Commonwealth there are many examples of good practice, where human rights are upheld by governments and protected effectively through their institutions. However there are many examples where this is simply not happening and where standing up for someone else's rights would be dangerous as I am sure you would acknowledge. What role do you think the Commonwealth (civil society, governments, and parliamentarians) has to play in protecting human rights?

The Commonwealth’s core values and principles, as outlined in the Harare Declaration and reaffirmed at Port-of-Spain reflect a deep and abiding commitment to promote good governance, the rule of law, gender equality and respect for the protection of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.  The Human Rights Unit at the Commonwealth Secretariat has been carrying out numerous activities to promote the commitment of states to the international human rights normative framework by encouraging the ratification of treaties; supporting the implementation of treaty obligations and undertakings given by governments during the Universal Periodic Reviews at the Human Rights Council; assisting states in the establishment of monitoring bodies such as National Human Rights Institutions; and contributing to awareness-raising and capacity-building activities. These are all very important efforts that will promote human rights as are many carried out by the Commonwealth family of organisations and associations, such as the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. While these pursuits are primarily geared to developing capacity to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, they do not, and indeed cannot, succeed in the absence of political will. Studies of how, when and where human rights commitments become most effective show that the mobilization of civil society, the engagement of transnational advocacy networks, and the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law are essential for translating human rights commitments into reality. Parliamentarians have a vital role to play in all three of these dimensions of promoting compliance with human rights obligations.

5. The UN is hosting a range of exciting events across the globe for Human Rights Day. They will all help raise awareness of human rights but what lasting impact do you think such events will have given the current challenges and violations that are suffered by so many?

The human rights movement today faces numerous challenges—from the flagrant violation of rights, often with impunity, in areas of conflict, instability and political repression to the push back on human rights in established democracies through continued austerity measures or rising security concerns or increasing societal intolerance. Yet, at the same time, there are also promising trends that could revitalize the promotion of human rights and which we should seek to highlight and support. The latter includes the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Agenda that promises to leave no one behind; the unprecedented levels of formal commitment by states to human rights through ratification of treaties or the Universal Period Review; and the proliferation of monitoring and oversight mechanisms such as the UN special procedures and the national human rights institutions.  But as studies show, for formal commitments to be converted into practice, the mobilization of people to demand their rights is crucial. The lasting impact of events like the Human Rights Day commemorations is their contribution to awareness-raising, especially amongst the youth, and to the mobilization of the people. This is particularly important given the rising levels of pressures on civil society, whether through laws that restrict funding or basic civil liberties. The global focus on human dignity on the Human Rights Day also demonstrates the universality of human rights, and provides an opportunity to audit our performance and recommit ourselves to reinforce the positive trends and challenge the negative pressures. I also wish to add that at a time when globalization has tended to polarize communities, the assertion of solidarity and empathy is an important act in and of itself.

 6. Finally what would you, as the UN Special Rapporteur for the Freedom of Religion or Belief, like Human Rights Day 2016 to achieve?

As the Vienna Consensus, attained at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 clearly states all human rights are universal, indivisible, inter-related and interdependent. It is this consensus that needs to be reaffirmed against competing claims of exceptionalism and essentialism. Human rights violations do not occur in isolation—where religious freedom rights are not respected, for example, it is unlikely that other civil liberties will be upheld or that economic, social and cultural rights will be realized. As the Human Rights Day theme this year is standing up for someone else’s rights, I would like to see widespread demonstration of solidarity and empathy with victims of human rights violations. In addition to championing individual victims, we also need to remember that perpetrators of human rights violations can target specific communities or groups, such as the Yezidis and other minorities in areas controlled by the Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Baha’i in Iran, Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, the Dalits in India, the secular bloggers, atheists and free thinkers in Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia, or indeed those who are targeted in the name of religion on account of their gender identity or sexual orientation. While the preceding list is by no means exhaustive, I would also like to note that persecution targets not only minority communities, as the plight of the Shia in Bahrain or the caseload of Iran’s Special Clerical Court show. And intolerance is not unique to the global South—there are worrying signs of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and attacks on the Sikh community even in more established democracies. I would like to see people the world over stand up for the rights of those who are persecuted on account of their beliefs or in the name of belief, wherever they may be. It would be especially gratifying to see leaders of those faiths and beliefs in whose name such violations are carried out, reject those activities and stand up in solidarity with the victims. That would be a very powerful denunciation of the “othering” that is often behind the persecution based on discrimination. A special thought this winter, though, for the victims caught up in areas of conflict and the millions of refugees and the internally displaced the world over. We need to stand up for their rights, not just today, but every day of the year.

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