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International Religious Freedom Advocacy

H. Knox Thames, Chris Seiple, and Amy Rowe

Around the world, persons of faith continue to face serious obstacles to the full and free enjoyment of religious freedom. Some authorities estimate that more than half of the world’s population cannot fully enjoy this cherished fundamental freedom. At the same time, religious freedom protections are well established in international law which recognizes it as a universal human right. Of course, despite states pledging to uphold and defend these norms through treaties and international agreements, implementation is inconsistent, even among European countries.

Advocacy 101

By pressing for governmental compliance, religious freedom advocacy saves lives, frees prisoners, and increases religious liberties. Within the international system, religious freedom advocates push for change by conducting direct advocacy, meeting with governmental and international policymakers, publicizing abuses, reporting on compliance to monitoring bodies, and using international complaint mechanisms. To be effective, advocates generally undertake these activities by joining or working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) committed to religious freedom. Advocates should concentrate on engaging international institutions and mobilizing their political leverage toward a government that is violating religious freedom. NGOs often act as the vital catalyst and go-between.

It is important for religious freedom advocacy groups to speak out against all forms of religious persecution and repression, even if their coreligionists are not affected or persons of no faith are targeted. Strength resides in numbers, and often a positive conclusion in one case will be useful to others in similar situations. Governments try to “buy” the silence of groups by providing benefits or freedoms exclusive to their communities. Advocates should avoid this temptation.

Advocates must also be very careful about the facts. If they are found to exaggerate or misrepresent, or to be ill-informed, then they will have a difficult time persuading persons of power and influence. One key issue is the use of vocabulary. Sometimes, in an attempt to induce a faster international response, advocates are tempted to exaggerate to make a situation sound more compelling. For instance, the word persecution is often carelessly thrown around without any thought as to its true meaning. This overuse only cheapens the term and lessens the impact when describing an actual situation of persecution, hindering an advocate’s effectiveness. It is an issue of trust. Once policymakers and monitoring bodies become aware of the loose usage of terminology, they will be much more difficult to persuade and motivate to action.

The Development of Human Rights

Originally, international law was about relations between states whose rights trumped individual rights. Thus within its borders a state could act as it wished and be immune from outside pressures. However, as the international system matured and developed from the 1700s to the 1900s, states gradually recognized individual rights. The major transition from the state-centric focus to a more individualistic approach came after the atrocities of World War II and the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. Establishment of the United Nations (UN) provided the architecture for a human rights system protecting an array of individual rights, including religious freedom.

Religious freedom is protected through a variety of international agreements and human rights treaties, which recognize personal freedoms and limit the actions of governments. These protections come in a variety of forms, with the most common being a treaty. Human rights treaties usually create individual rights and state obligations, and are sometimes called covenants, conventions, or charters. A treaty can be amended through a protocol, which often adds additional rights or introduces new mechanisms to enforce the treaty. In addition to the United Nations, groups of countries have developed regional organizations, similar in structure to the United Nations but limited in geographical scope.

The International Religious Freedom Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998, provides a useful explanation of what can constitute a violation of religious freedom in Section 3(13)(A): arbitrary prohibitions on, restrictions of, or punishment for 1) assembling for peaceful religious activities such as worship, preaching, and prayer, including arbitrary registration requirements; 2) speaking freely about one’s religious beliefs; 3) changing one’s religious beliefs and affiliation; 4) possessing and distributing religious literature, including Bibles; and 5) raising one’s children in the religious teachings and practices of one’s choice. Examples of infringements on religious liberty include stringent registration requirements, favoring particular religious expressions, arbitrary thresholds, free speech limitations, and misuse of national security concerns.

Registration Schemes—Too Much Information

Registration schemes that fall outside of international standards seek to control rather than facilitate the enjoyment of religious freedom for all. In many countries, registration with the government is required for a group to practice “legally” or to enjoy a corporate status. Often, these systems require special governmental bodies to review doctrines. This is problematic because it places the state in the inappropriate position of determining what constitutes a religion, and it can lead to discrimination against new or minority religious communities.

Tiers—Some Are More Equal Than Others

Problematic religion laws often establish de facto, if not de jure, tiers for religious communities. In these systems, tiers can take the form of different levels of religious community status. They can also come in the form of recognizing one or a few religious groups as “traditional,” thereby discriminating against all other groups and placing them in a permanent second-class status. Usually favored status comes with benefits: state funding, avoidance of registration, and tax breaks.

Thresholds—The Numbers Game

Thresholds often accompany tiered systems and utilize numerical criteria for placing groups on different levels. In these situations, religion laws require congregations to have a certain number of adult members. If this number is below 100, the requirement is generally viewed as benign. However, if it reaches into the thousands, then the threshold is discriminatory. Laws can also establish time-framed restrictions, requiring religious groups to operate in the country for a certain period of time before qualifying for registration or a higher level of recognition. These schemes prevent minority religious communities from enjoying the same status as traditional groups and from having access to certain legal protections and benefits.

Free Speech Limitations—The Gag Rule

An increasing number of countries have placed limitations on free speech, regulating public sharing of religious belief that intends to persuade the listener to another point of view. States increasingly use the concept of “proper” and “improper” proselytism: It is deemed improper if individuals are pressured to convert or monetary or material gain is offered to induce conversion.

National Security—False Justification

Many times, governments cite national security as a reason to limit religious freedom. International agreements protecting religious freedom do not recognize national security as a permissible justification to limit religious manifestations, but only “public safety, order, health, [and] morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”—ICCPR art.18 (3). Jurists have also firmly established that this is a narrow list of limitations, for employment only in rare occasions.

The United Nations

Created out of the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust, the United Nations is the world’s preeminent international organization. While often criticized for its bureaucracy and slow response, the UN performs many positive functions. Its 1948 founding charter declares one of its primary goals to be the promotion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. This simple but momentous reference for the first time recognized world consensus that human rights were of global concern. Building on this recognition, subsequent UN conventions and covenants have enumerated these rights and concretely established religious freedom as a fundamental freedom.

UN religious freedom commitments are found in the so-called “International Bill of Rights,” comprised of three documents—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In 1948 the UN General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without any objections. This foundation document of the international human rights system was drafted under the supervision of Eleanor Roosevelt as Chair of the Commission on Human Rights. It was the first attempt by the world community to codify human rights standards.

While General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding, the Universal Declaration is viewed as a “common standard of achievement” against which to measure government actions. Several provisions of the Universal Declaration are not recognized as universal rights by many countries, such as the right to work or to leisure. However, Article 18 on religious freedom is widely supported. Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks directly to religious freedom. It recognizes that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance” (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR). Other parts of the Universal Declaration speak to religious freedom. Article 2(1) condemns religiously based discrimination that would limit the enjoyment of these rights while Article 19 protects all forms of speech, including religious expression.

The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, focusing on political rights, provides a more elaborate enunciation of the right to religious freedom than the UDHR. Since it is a treaty, its provisions are also legally binding, unlike the declaratory UDHR. Article 18 of the ICCPR that deals directly with religious freedom requires governments to recognize the right of individuals to freely follow the religion of their choice and declares that no one may be coerced into joining a religion.

The Human Rights Committee, established by ICCPR Article 28, is the primary treaty-based body of concern to religious freedom advocates. Its role is to monitor the implementation of the ICCPR (http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/6/hrc.htm). The committee was given a complaint recourse mechanism through the approval of the First Optional Protocol to the Covenant in 1976. Expanding the committee’s role significantly, the Protocol empowered the committee to receive communications from individuals from those countries ratifying the Protocol who assert a violation of their ICCPR rights. Countries may also file complaints against other state parties. One hundred and five countries have now ratified the First Optional Protocol. Human Rights Committee decisions are nonbinding, but they nonetheless provide a high-profile, public venue to raise concerns. Any committee ruling against a state places increased international pressure on a government to reform its policies and practices.

The European Union

The European Union (EU) is a supranational and intergovernmental organization bringing together 27 member countries from across Europe. With over 500 million citizens living across roughly 1.6 million square miles and speaking 23 languages, the European Union is becoming more and more of an international force. Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, the EU is built around the principles of human rights, democracy, and rule of law.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights outlines the political rights of all EU citizens. Article 10 parallels what is found in the Universal Declaration and the International Covenant, while also expressly providing for the right to change one’s religion. The Charter’s status is unique, as it is not considered a treaty or legally binding document, but rather a proclamation of human rights that all EU member states should uphold. Until all 27 states agree on the form of the European Constitution, the Charter will remain an important nonbinding agreement on states that reflect European standards on human rights and religious freedom.

The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe (CoE) is the oldest regional organization in Europe, established in 1949 by the Treaty of London with ten founding members. Open to all European democracies, the CoE expanded significantly after the end of the Cold War, and its membership overlaps with both the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The CoE now stretches into Eastern Europe and beyond, with members including the Russian Federation, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Today, the number of participating countries totals 47.

Headquartered in Strasbourg, France, the purpose of the CoE is to promote human rights, democratization, and rule of law in all member countries. Considering the wide array of countries and traditions brought into the CoE after the post-Communist expansion, the CoE focuses heavily on ensuring that all members uphold their legally binding commitments to human rights and democratization. The CoE has several important bodies with concerns for religious freedom including the European Court of Human Rights.

The essential document for the Council of Europe is the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, also known as the European Convention on Human Rights, which was adopted in 1950 and entered into force in 1953. Acceptance has become a prerequisite for applicant countries wishing to join the CoE. Predating the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention represented the first attempt to make legally binding the rights highlighted in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 9 of the Convention protects the religious freedom of individuals residing in CoE countries. Following a similar formula to the UDHR, it specifically recognizes the freedom of the individual to “change his religion or belief.” Many additional protocols have been added to the Convention to expand its scope on a variety of issues. However, the greatest developments (especially for religious freedom) have come through the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, which was established by the European Convention (http://www.echr.coe.int/echr/).

The European Court represents the most advanced and developed international human rights judicial system in the world, as 47 Council of Europe members have submitted themselves to the Court’s jurisdiction. The number of cases sent to the court is very large and increases each year. In 1981, roughly 400 applications were filed, whereas in 2001 close to 14,000 were submitted. The Court is therefore extremely active, hearing a wide range of cases based on the various articles of the European Convention for Human Rights. In its various rulings, the Court has repeatedly emphasized that freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society and must be protected. F

Editor’s note: The second half of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 19 (Summer 2011).

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from H. Knox Thames, Chris Seiple, and Amy Rowe, International Religious Freedom Advocacy; A Guide to Organizations, Law, and NGOs (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009).

H. Knox Thames is Director of Policy and Research for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Washington, DC. Chris Seiple is President of the Institute for Global Engagement, Arlington, Virginia.

Amy Rowe served as Director of Country Programs at the Institute for Global Engagement, Arlington, Virginia, until 2007.