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Religion and human rights in the EU – a shared responsibility

EU Dialogue with Churches, Religions, Philosophical and Non-Confessional organisations:

      "Religion and Human Rights within the EU – A Shared Responsibility"
European Parliament, 4 December 2018

Birgit Van Hout
Regional Representative for Europe
UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR)

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the United Nations Human Rights Office, I would like to thank you very much for the kind invitation to participate in today’s seminar.

The legal basis that article 17 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) provides – for an “open, transparent and regular dialogue” between the EU institutions and churches, religious associations or communities as well as philosophical and non-confessional organisations – is quite unique.

Having such an inclusive dialogue is crucial and article 17 clearly includes religions and beliefs. International human rights law is also inclusive in protecting theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief, as stressed by the UN Human Rights Committee already 25 years ago in its general comment on freedom of religion or belief.

I particularly appreciate the focus of today’s event on “religion and human rights”. We often read news headlines or hear discussions about “religion versus rights”, where these two spheres are presented as irreconcilable. However, human rights are neither opposed to faith, nor vice versa. At the same time it is true that the deep and mutually enriching connections between religions and human rights are under-explored and less supported in practice.

Filling this gap is the rationale of the “Faith for Rights” initiative that the UN Human Rights Office launched last year. The objective is to foster the development of peaceful societies, which uphold human dignity and equality for all and where diversity is not just tolerated but fully respected and celebrated.

The Beirut Declaration on “Faith for Rights”, which was adopted by faith-based and civil society actors in March 2017, stresses that religions and beliefs share a common commitment to upholding the dignity and the equal worth of all human beings. I quote: “Shared human values and equal dignity are common roots of our cultures. ‘Faith’ and ‘Rights’ should be mutually reinforcing spheres. Individual and communal expression of religions or beliefs thrive and flourish in environments where human rights, based on the equal worth of all individuals, are protected. Similarly, human rights can benefit from deeply rooted ethical and spiritual foundations provided by religion or beliefs.”

But the Beirut Declaration is not “yet another declaration”. It is linked to concrete projects and includes 18 commitments through which faith-based actors articulate how “Faith” can more effectively stand up for “Rights” in order to enhance each other. These commitments notably include the pledge to defend freedom of religion or belief of all persons belonging to minorities and their right to participate equally and effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life.

Let me briefly highlight the fifth Commitment on non-discrimination and gender equality, with a concrete pledge to revisit those religious understandings and interpretations that appear to perpetuate gender inequality or even condone gender-based violence. It also affirms the right of all girls and women not to be subjected to female genital mutilation, child and/or forced marriages and crimes committed in the name of so-called honour. This human rights commitment is illustrated with pertinent quotes from the Talmud, Bible, Qu’ran, Hadith, Guru Granth Sahib, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the recently adopted joint UN general comment on harmful practices. This approach in itself is more than symbolic, since it constitutes a referential bridge – instead of an ocean of divide – between faith and rights.

UN treaty bodies have also been using the “Faith for Rights” framework. For example, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommended Nigeria to repeal or amend all discriminatory laws and “include religious leaders in the process of addressing issues of faith and human rights, so as to build on several ‘faith for rights’ initiatives”.

Let me also give you two examples from Europe of how “Faith” can actually support “Rights”. In Cyprus, a colleague of mine introduced the “Faith for Rights” framework during an interfaith roundtable held in the buffer zone of Nicosia to promote dialogue and cooperation on religion and human rights. The Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process has translated the 18 commitments on “Faith for Rights” into Greek and Turkish, in order to make them available for concrete projects for and with women, men and children on both sides of the island.

Similarly, we conducted a workshop in Pristina on protecting human rights while countering terrorism and preventing violent extremism. For this workshop, which was tailored to civil society representatives and legal practitioners, the Human Rights Section of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) translated the 18 commitments on “Faith for Rights” into Albanian and Serbian, which are available online with seven other translations.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has quoted the Beirut Declaration and its 18 commitments as soft law instruments, stressing that they are “important opportunities for advancing respect for freedom of religion and societal tolerance”. The UN Human Rights Office has been using the “Faith for Rights” framework for training and advocacy purposes with religious minorities, civil society actors and human rights mechanisms. Recent workshops in Rabat, Tunis and Marrakesh focused on the role of women, youth and religious leaders in promoting human rights.

Later this month, we will organize in France an expert workshop to strengthen the implementation of minority rights, freedom of religion or belief and preventing violent extremism through designing a human rights education and training manual for faith actors.

Religious leaders, with their considerable influence on the hearts and minds of millions of people, are potentially very important human rights actors. They can play a crucial positive role in helping to shape our present and future. Thus, they have three specific core responsibilities:

  1. Religious leaders should refrain from using messages of intolerance or expressions which may incite violence, hostility or discrimination;
  2. Religious leaders also have a crucial role to play in speaking out firmly and promptly against intolerance, discriminatory stereotyping and instances of hate speech; and
  3. Religious leaders should be clear that violence can never be tolerated as a response to incitement to hatred.

In order to distinguish free speech from hate speech, the UN Human Rights Office has provided practical guidance through the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of incitement to hatred. It outlines a six-part test that looks into the context of the statement, the speaker’s position and intent, the content and extent of the speech as well as the likelihood that the speech would incite action against the target group. This test is being used by the national authorities for audio-visual communication in Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire and Morocco as well as by the UK civil society campaign “Stop Funding Hate”.

Furthermore, in its recent judgment on the Pussy Riot case1, the European Court of Human Rights referred to the Rabat Plan of Action under relevant international materials as well as in its summaries of submissions from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Article19.

This illustrates how civil society organizations as well as regional and international human rights mechanisms can work hand in hand in order to address incitement to religious hatred, while fully respecting freedom of expression.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to conclude with a quote from the late Asma Jahangir, the former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who next week will be posthumously awarded the 2018 UN Human Rights Prize. Ten years ago, the European Parliament invited her to deliver a keynote speech during the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue and she made the following powerful plea:

“It seems crucial to institutionalise an intercultural dialogue at various levels in the right format and with a wide selection of participants, while still allowing for a real exchange of views. I think that joint declarations and statements by religious leaders are important; however, I would like to take this opportunity to emphasise the vital role of grass-root initiatives, concrete meetings and joint actions. I also believe that it is better to have a war of words than to have tensions that are long-lasting. When average, theistic, atheistic and non-theistic believers get together, some of them perhaps for the first time ever, they – hopefully – learn a lot from each other, even if they finally disagree on substantive issues. Universal values should serve as a bridge between different religions and beliefs, and I do not accept the fact that universal values of human rights can be and should be subservient to either social or religious norms2.”Thank you.


1. European Court of Human Rights, Mariya Alekhina and Others v. Russia, Application no. 38004/12, Third Section judgment of 17 July 2018 (request for referral to the Grand Chamber pending).

2. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+CRE+20080618+ITEM-005+DOC+XML+V0//EN