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Council holds interactive dialogue with Experts on situation of human rights defenders and on freedom of religion or belief

MORNING

10 March 2011

The Human Rights Council this morning held a clustered interactive dialogue with Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and Heiner Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said that for her third thematic report, she had focused on the situation of women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues. Based primarily on an analysis of the communications sent by the mandate during the 2004-2009 period, the report identified the risks and challenges that these defenders faced by providing an outline of the common activities they were engaged in, the violations they suffered and the perpetrators involved. According to the communications sent by the mandate during the aforementioned period, the group which was most exposed to violations was that of women defenders and those who worked on women’s rights and gender issues in general, including those carrying out activities related to violence against women, impunity and sexual and reproductive rights.

Heiner Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said that school education should provide fair and unbiased definitions of religious beliefs and face to face daily exchange between people from different backgrounds. Information about religions and beliefs should always include the crucial insight that religions, as a social reality, were not monolithic, which also applied to non-religious beliefs. It was important that textbooks and other materials in public schools should draw a sufficiently comprehensive picture of the various religions or beliefs and their internal pluralism. Religious instruction in the public school system should always go hand in hand with specific safeguards to protect members of religious or belief minorities, with a minimum requirement that members of minorities should have the possibility of opting out of religious instruction that went against their own convictions.

Armenia spoke as concerned country.

During the interactive dialogue, many speakers expressed appreciation for the important work of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Delegations expressed concern about the use and threat of violence against human rights defenders worldwide and recognised the important role that human rights defenders played in protecting and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national, regional and international levels. Speakers believed that interfaith dialogue was an important and effective means for broadening understanding among religions and promoting religious tolerance. Delegations fully agreed with the conclusions of the distinguished Rapporteur in this year’s thematic report that the school environment could play a crucial role in the elimination of negative stereotyping of persons based on their religious affiliation. Educational policies should aim to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights, and eradicate preferences and conceptions incompatible with freedom of religion or belief.

In the interactive discussion, the following delegations took the floor: Germany, France, Australia, Slovakia, European Union, Canada, Czech Republic, Pakistan, Mexico, Ireland, Guatemala, Colombia, Morocco, Italy, Poland, Ghana, Austria, Iraq, Indonesia, Slovenia, Islamic Republic of Iran, Uganda, Norway, China, Egypt, Honduras, Switzerland, Chile, Belarus, Tunisia, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Belgium, New Zealand, Serbia, Denmark, Hungary and Kuwait.

The next meeting of the Council will be at 3 p.m. this afternoon when it will conclude its interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and started the general debate under item 3 on the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.

Documentation

The Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, (A/HRC/16/44), provides an account of the Special Rapporteur’s activities during the reporting year, focuses on the situation of women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues, the risks and violations that they face and the perpetrators involved, analyses the risks and violations reported to the mandate, provides an overview of the gender-sensitivity of the protection mechanisms in place as well as on the strategies that these defenders use to keep themselves safe, and outlines her conclusions and recommendations to Member States, national human rights institutions, regional protection mechanisms and national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Corrigendum, (A/HRC/16/44/Corr.1), Paragraph 77 should read: With regard to arrests, detentions and criminalization, the majority of the communications were sent to the Russian Federation (10), Belarus (8) and Uzbekistan (8). In this context, those most at risk of arrest appear to include women defenders working on human rights issues related to the conflict in the North Caucasus; pro-democracy advocates, particularly in Belarus; women’s rights defenders in Belarus and Uzbekistan; those denouncing violations to the European Court of Human Rights, particularly in the Russian Federation; and women journalists in all three countries. In other European countries, smaller numbers of communications concerning allegations of arrests and detentions were sent to, inter alia, Kyrgyzstan, Spain, Turkey and Turkmenistan. Communications regarding other forms of criminalization and judicial harassment were sent to Azerbaijan, France, Greece, Kyrgyzstan, the Republic of Moldova and Turkey.

Communications to and from Governments, (A/HRC/16/44/Add.1), is a summary of cases transmitted to governments and replies received.

Mission to Armenia (12 to 18 June 2010), (A/HRC/16/44/Add.2), presents the general context in which human rights defenders in Armenia operate. Civil society, and in particular human rights defenders, function within an increasingly politicized environment and few actors have been unaffected by the political divisions of recent years, particularly in the wake of the 2008 events. The report describes the legal and institutional framework for the promotion and protection of human rights in Armenia.

Compilation of Replies to the Questionnaire, (A/HRC/16/44/Add.3), contains responses from Governments and non-governmental organizations to a questionnaire regarding the main challenges and risks that women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues face.

The Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, (A/HRC/16/53), gives an overview of the mandate activities since the submission of the previous report to the Human Rights Council; focuses on the theme of freedom of religion or belief and school education; and in conclusions notes that freedom of religion or belief and school education is a multifaceted issue that entails significant opportunities as well as far-reaching challenges.

Communications to and from Governments, (A/HRC/16/53/Add.1), gives an account of communications transmitted to governments between 1 December 2009 and 30 November 2010. The report also contains summaries of the replies received from governments by 2 February 2011 and observations of the Special Rapporteur where considered appropriate.

Presentation of Reports

MARGARET SEKAGGYA, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, said that for her third thematic report, she had focused on the situation of women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues. The scope of this report was broad in nature, encompassing the risks and challenges faced by women human rights defenders, and those working on women’s rights and gender issues, as well as highlighting the repercussions that such work might have on partners, spouses, and family members of defenders.

Since its inception, the mandate had repeatedly addressed the specificities of the situation of women human rights defenders and those who worked on women’s rights and gender issues. These defenders were indeed more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence and other violations, prejudice exclusion and repudiation. This was often due to the fact that their work was perceived as challenging accepted socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society.

With the report, Ms. Sekaggya intended to contribute to a greater understanding of the situation of women human rights defenders and those defending women’s rights or gender issues. Based primarily on an analysis of the communications sent by the mandate during the 2004-2009 period, the report identified the risks and challenges that these defenders faced by providing an outline of the common activities they were engaged in, the violations they suffered and the perpetrators involved. Additional information regarding the security and protection mechanisms in place was obtained through the replies received from 22 Member States and 33 non-governmental organizations to a questionnaire sent by the mandate. According to the communications sent by the mandate during the aforementioned period, the group which was most exposed to violations was that of women defenders and those who worked on women’s rights and gender issues in general, including those carrying out activities related to violence against women, impunity and sexual and reproductive rights. In addition, women defenders working as legal professionals, journalists and media professionals, those working on access to justice and redress and those working in the context of military conflict or widespread violence appeared also to be more exposed to violations.

Ms. Sekaggya said the most commonly repeated violations against women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues were threats, death threats and killings, particularly directed at women defenders in the Americas region who worked to end impunity, who were trade unionists or who advocated for the rights of indigenous peoples. Women rights defenders also seemed more at risk of suffering arrest and further judicial harassment and criminalization, particularly in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Central Asia. Moreover the prevalence of the alleged use of torture, as well as other forms of ill-treatment and mistreatment of women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues while in detention was alarming.

While human rights defenders in general were too often branded as terrorists, extremists and separatists, this study showed how women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues were in addition stigmatized by virtue of their sex, or indeed the gender or sexuality-based rights that they advocated. The Special Rapporteur was dismayed at the large number of violations against women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues which were reported to be perpetrated by agents or representatives of the State, including police officers, military, Government officials and the judiciary. These violations included arrests, torture, ill-treatment, criminalization, wrongful sentencing, but also stigmatization, threats, death threats and killings. This was simply inacceptable. In addition to minimum guidelines for the security and protection of human rights defenders that the Special Rapporteur provided last year in this same forum, Ms. Sekaggya urged States to publicly acknowledged the particular and significant role they played, in order to reduce the risks they faced. Policies and programmes for the protection of women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues had to involve appropriate consultation, be adequately resourced and integrate a gender perspective. The State should also provide support for projects that developed the documentation of cases of violations against women’s defenders and those working on women’s rights. National human rights institutions had a big role to play, and the Special Rapporteur strongly recommended that they integrated a gender dimension in the planning and implementation of all programmes. Finally, it was important for non-governmental organizations to engage with governmental and intergovernmental bodies regarding the design of programmes for the protection of human rights defenders ensuring that women defenders and those working on women’s rights were put into account.

HEINER BIELEFELDT, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, said that the thematic issue of his report was freedom of religion or belief and school situations. For members of religious minorities, the school situation could trigger hope that school education could contribute to dispelling negative stereotypes and prejudices, but it could also lead to fear of discrimination, mobbing or pressure in the school, perhaps even with the intention of urging them to assimilate into main stream society by abandoning their faith. School education should provide fair and unbiased definitions of religious beliefs and face to face daily exchange between people from different backgrounds. Information about religions and beliefs should always include the crucial insight that religions, as a social reality, were not monolithic, which also applied to non-religious beliefs. In extreme cases, such ascription of a collective mentality could amount to de-personalized perceptions of human beings, possibly with devastating dehumanizing repercussions. Religions or beliefs changed over time and when practices had a negative on the situation of women or girls, some women called for reforms by advocating and pursuing innovative interpretations of the respective sources, doctrines or norms. It was important that textbooks and other materials in public schools should draw a sufficiently comprehensive picture of the various religions or beliefs and their internal pluralism.

The possibility of having face-to-face interaction of students was no less important than the development of intellectual skills because such regular interaction could promote a sense of communality and an appreciation of diversity. School provided unique possibilities for such dialogue to take place on a daily basis, at a grass-roots level and during the formative years of a young person’s development. The wearing of religious garments in schools and the display of religious symbols in classrooms was a matter of controversy in a number of countries. Students or teachers who wore Islamic headscarves or Sikh turbans were expelled from schools, denied access to higher education or suspended from their jobs while the compulsory display in classrooms of religious symbols, such as the crucifix had yielded numerous court decisions at national and regional levels.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion included freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. On the other hand, the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief was not without limitations. According to the criteria that was set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, limitations should be ‘prescribed by law and be necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.’ The general presumption in favour of the possibility to wear religious symbols should also be connected with a number of caveats, for example to protect students from pressure exercised by schoolmates or their community. The goal should be to equally protect the positive and negative aspects of freedom of religion or belief and the freedom not to be exposed to any pressure, especially from the State or within State institutions.

It was crucial to distinguish conceptually between information about religions or beliefs, which served the purpose of broadening the students’ general knowledge about different religions and religious instruction, or which aimed at familiarizing students with their own religious faith. Religious instruction in the public school system should always go hand in hand with specific safeguards to protect members of religious or belief minorities, with a minimum requirement that members of minorities should have the possibility of opting out of religious instruction that went against their own convictions.

The Special Rapporteur referred to worrying trends, as identified in his communications report, of allegations of disappearances, torture, arrest and detention of individuals who belonged to religious minorities or belief communities; inter-communal violence which resulted in the killing of hundreds of persons, including women and children; death threats and discrimination against converts; statements inciting violence directed against members of religious minorities; public manifestations of religious intolerance; and legislation on blasphemy charges.

Statement by Concerned Country

SATENIK ABGARIAN (Armenia), speaking as a concerned country, thanked the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders for her visit to Armenia and said the Government would continue to support her mandate. Armenia had already sent written comments to the report, but wished to clarify some issues. Concerning the events of March 2008, Armenia said that those events had not occurred in an ordinary context of the country; the issue was still at the centre of attention of authorities and civil society. With regard to the institutional legal framework for the activities of human rights defenders, Armenia said that the introduction of the new law on radio and television was on the way, and that the law on the right to freedom of assembly had been drafted in accordance with the international instruments and the European Human Rights Court. A major reform programme in the police was currently underway. The Government cooperated regularly with civil society and non-governmental organizations, and each year a number of seminars and round tables was jointly organised. Large parts of legislation reflected the opinion of the civil society and many non-governmental organizations in Armenia had their websites and were free to disseminate information about their actives. Armenia reaffirmed the determination to continue improving the environment for the operation of human rights defenders in this country.

Interactive Dialogue

REINHARD SCHWEPPE (Germany) said that the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion and belief was one of the key priorities of Germany’s human rights policy. Germany had witnessed with deep sorrow and concern the increasing number of acts of religious intolerance and violence in various countries against Christians, Muslims and members of other religious communities. They took note of the sad fact that, regrettably, no part of the world was exempt from the scourge of religious intolerance and discrimination. Their fight against all forms of religious intolerance or even hatred could not start early enough. Germany therefore was fully supportive of Professor Bielefeldt’s focus on school education, as probably one of the best and proper tools to spread the idea that freedom of religion and faith and the spirit of mutual tolerance had to be recognized as untouchable cornerstones of people’s lives and rights.

JEAN BAPTISTE MATTEI (France) said that France reaffirmed its support to religious diversity and supported all countries combating terrorism and would like to remind States of their responsibly to protect people regardless of their religion or belief and to bring to justice those who had committed heinous acts. France paid tribute to Mr. Shabaz Batti, who had worked for religious tolerance. In the area of school education, France supported the conclusions of the report and would like the Special Rapporteur to explain the conditions for members of the Bahai community and whether or not they were discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. Human rights defenders were essential actors and should be protected against reprisals and France was concerned about the vulnerability of female human rights workers and would like the Special Rapporteur to indicate best practices to protect women rights defenders and their activities in civil society.

PETER WOOLCOTT (Australia) said Australia believed that interfaith dialogue was an important and effective means for broadening understanding among religions and promoting religious tolerance. In 2008 Australia upgraded its participation in the United Nations Ministerial Meeting on Interfaith Dialogue and encouraged other governments to look for opportunities to promote religious tolerance through tools such as interfaith dialogue and education. Australia agreed with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion that school constituted the most important formal institution for the implementation of the right to education. Australia recognised the important role that human rights defenders played in protecting and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national, regional and international levels and strongly supported the involvement of national human rights institutions in international human rights mechanisms globally, including in the Human Rights Council. Australia remained deeply concerned about the use and threat of violence against human rights defenders worldwide, and particularly about violence against women human rights defenders and those working on women or gender issues.

BRANISLAV LYSAK (Slovakia) said Slovakia welcomed the focus of the Special Rapporteur’s third report to the Council on the situation of women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues and, in general, for having consistency addressed the issue since the establishment of the mandate. Slovakia fully shared the Special Rapporteur’s views that women human rights defenders and those advocating for their rights were particularly exposed to extraordinary risks, directly affecting their physical and psychological integrity.
Slovakia also expressed appreciation of the active and cooperative approach of Mr. Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, to this important mandate since its takeover in August 2010. They fully agreed with the conclusions of the distinguished Rapporteur in this year’s thematic report that the school environment could play a crucial role in the elimination of negative stereotyping of persons based on their religious affiliation.

NICOLE RECKINGER (European Union) said the European Union would like the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to provide information on the following three questions. First, what were the most efficient measures to tackle violence, intolerance and discrimination against persons belonging to religious minorities? Second, what were the main obstacles to guaranteeing the protection of cultural diversity? Third, could there be an elaboration on the inter-linkage between women’s rights and freedom of religion or belief.

The European Union would like the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders to provide information on what actions the Human Rights Council could take to ensure that States prevented a culture of impunity. How could the Council more actively contribute towards fostering a deeper understanding of and respect for fundamental rights while respecting local sensitiveness and perceptions, especially regarding the role of women in society. How could a greater awareness be promoted of the fact that whether or not there was agreement with the opinions and positions of defenders, there was a requirement for their legitimate role as human rights defenders to be consistently asserted.

Mr. K. SHAHROOF (Canada) said with respect to freedom of religion or belief, Canada noted the significant opportunities as well as challenges associated with protecting the individual’s right to freedom of religion or belief in schools as identified by the Special Rapporteur. Respect for religious diversity was a critical element of Canada’s work to promote and protect human rights both at home and aboard and Canada consistently combated all forms of religious intolerance and called on all States to respect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. Canada asked the Special Rapporteur if he had observed positive trends or best practices on the issues addressed in his report. Concerning the report presented by the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Canada noted the suggestion that States integrate a gender dimension in the planning and implementation of all programmes related to human rights defenders and asked the Special Rapporteur if she had identified any best practices in this regard.

VERONIKA STROMSIKOVA (Czech Republic) said the Czech Republic appreciated the important work that the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders did for the protection of individuals in every corner of the world, who despite obstacles and personal exposure strove for respect for human rights for all. At least 13 individual women human rights defenders were mentioned solely in her communications and urgent appeals to the Government. The Czech Republic asked the Special Rapporteur, how, in her opinion, this Council could contribute to the fight against stigmatization of the work of human rights defenders, including women. The Czech Republic thanked Mr. Bielefeldt for his report and they appreciated the focus on the essential role of education in fostering mutual tolerance between different religions and beliefs. However, the Czech Republic asked the Special Rapporteur if he would consider that the issue may deserve specific attention in his future work and how he would assess the general trends in this regard.

ASIM VETIKHAR AHMAD (Pakistan), speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference, said the Organization of the Islamic Conference thanked the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. The Organization of the Islamic Conference would like greater clarity on what percentage of the violations identified were carried out by States or State functionaries and what numbers by non State actors. This was an important issue because it impacted directly on issues of State responsibility on how to deal with this problem and what approach to take to address it most effectively. The Organization of the Islamic Conference noted with concern that the Special Rapporteur preferred to comment on social entities that were not consistent with the recognized human rights in the United Nations system and would expect the Special Rapporteur to take note of this in future work. The Organization of the Islamic Conference commended the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief for his report and stressed the importance of dialogue and education in the promotion of tolerance and respect for diversity and to promote a culture of peace and respect for all religions and beliefs.

ARTURO HERNANDEZ BASAVE (Mexico) said that a number of non-governmental organizations were outside of the room and were being prevented from entering since there was not enough room for them. Mexico suggested that an appropriate audio-visual solution be found to this problem to enable them to follow the proceedings. Turning to the reports presented by the two Special Rapporteurs this morning, Mexico said that the situation of women human rights defenders was of a particular importance to Mexico. They were particularly at risk from violence, abuse and prosecution. The work of male and female human rights defenders was a priority of the Government of Mexico and this had been reflected in the national policies, legislation and national plan of action. Right now, the Government was working on designing a protection mechanism for human rights defenders, which should be able to be triggered by the human rights defenders themselves. Mexico was aware that the country was still facing challenges in ensuring that human rights defenders could work without interference and therefore Mexico took to heart the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur in her report, particularly in relation to women human rights defenders and to human rights defenders working on women or gender issues.

MICHEAL TIERNEY (Ireland) said Ireland was gravely concerned by the extraordinary risks that women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues faced in many countries, and welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s decision to focus on this particularly vulnerable group of human rights defenders in her report. Ireland posed to the Special Rapporteur some questions. In her report, the Special Rapporteur recommended that, in States where programmes for the security of human rights defenders had already been developed, Governments should ensure that such programmes integrated a gender perspective and addressed the specific risks and security needs of women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues. In this regard, Ireland asked the Special Rapporteur to outline some of the key features that a Government programme for the effective protection of these defenders should possess.

CARLOS RAMIRO MARTINEZ ALVARADO (Guatemala) said Guatemala thanked the two Rapporteurs for their reports and would focus on the report on human rights defenders. Guatemala had extended great efforts to protect human rights defenders. In the corresponding State bodies there were established specific investigation units to consider violations of the rights of human rights defenders and an action plan for the protection of human rights defenders was created. Despite these efforts, the Government was still aware that there was much to be done and that there were still complaints of attacks against human rights defenders.

ALICIA VICTORIA ARANGO OLMOS (Colombia) said Colombia believed that the conclusions and recommendations in the report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders deserved the full attention of States. The Vice President of Colombia had underlined the recognition of the work of human rights defenders in Colombia and had set up the space for a dialogue on this issue, which was now the central mechanism to provide recognition of the human rights defenders. The national human rights conference was the main venue in Colombia for joint work with civil society and international community, where a common agenda was approved. Colombia appreciated the constructive approach of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and reiterated Colombia’s support for her mandate.

OMAR HILALE (Morocco) said Morocco congratulated the two Special Rapporteurs for the work that they had done both in term of the themes chosen in their reports and for their work. Morocco reiterated its support for Ms. Sekaggya’s mandate and was convinced that her cause was noble and important. The Kingdom of Morocco had promptly responded to the communications received by the Special Rapporteur and they welcomed the theme chosen by the Special Rapporteur and supported this gender approach. Morocco said that human rights defenders also had duties and obligations and were accountable under the law where they acted. Human rights defenders were not actors without status and should not be allowed themselves to be instrumentalized by outsiders or foreigners.

PAOLO CUCULI (Italy) said Italy was concerned about the rise in acts of intolerance and violence against members of religious communities around the world, including the recent killing of the Pakistani Minister for Religious Minorities Shabbaz Bhatti, and the clashes in Cairo two days ago in which both Coptic Christians and Muslims were murdered. Italy strongly condemned these atrocities and joined the call made on 7 January by the High Commissioner who urged States to show determination in combating such violence. Italy asked the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief which additional initiatives could be envisaged to effectively tackle and reverse this alarming trend, and on the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief, which other main challenges to its full implementation could be identified.

MALGORZATA POLOMSKA (Poland) said Poland fully shared the concern of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of women human rights defenders and women journalists and the view that protection of human rights defenders was the primary duty of States. However, large number of violations appeared to be committed or perpetrated by agents of States, including police, military, government officials and the judiciary. Poland was concerned that despite repeated requests, a number of States had not responded positively to requests by the Special Rapporteur for country visits. Poland asked what the reasons were for States to not give due attention to those requests and how the Council should react to persistent patterns of non-cooperation of States with the mandate holders. Poland expressed its concern about the serious human rights violations perpetrated by Belarusian authorities following the presidential elections in December 2010 and urged the Special Rapporteur to closely follow the situation in this country. Poland welcomed the attention given in the report to the role of school education and the mass media by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Poland noted with grave concern the increasing number of brutal acts of violence against representatives of Christian and other religious minorities and asked the Special Rapporteur what the main reasons of this worrying trend were and what measures could effectively tackle incidents of violence

JUDE KWAME OSEI (Ghana) noted the report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and welcomed the nexus he drew between the enjoyment of these freedoms and the provision of sound school education. Sound education was the bedrock on which the enjoyment of all human rights rested. Interaction between people of different faiths was a sine qua non for the promotion of tolerance and respect for human rights. This should be encouraged, not merely by teachers and school administrators, but also by parents, families and legal guardians. In this regard, Ghana endorsed the recommendation by the Special Rapporteur that educational policies should aim to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights, eradicating preferences and conceptions incompatible with freedom of religion or belief.

MARGARETA PLODER (Austria) said Austria was concerned about persistent acts of violence against persons belonging to religious minorities worldwide. Austria would like to ask the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief what plans he had to address the need to step up efforts to ensure that human rights were safeguarded, including for persons belonging to religious minorities, and to encourage mutual respect, dialogue and partnership among persons belonging to religious minorities. With regard to the display of religious symbols in public schools, Austria concurred with the statement that States must carefully calibrate the positive and negative aspects of freedom of religion or belief. Austria would like to know, regarding the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation that States uphold confessional neutrality in public education, if this neutrality should be absolute.

MOHAMED ALI ALHAKIM (Iraq) said Iraq noted the importance of the need to protect human rights defenders and said they had a holy mission among local communities. All States must provide protection to human rights defenders and increase sanctions for those who violated their rights. Iraq noted that the improvement of the security situation in the country had greatly helped in ensuring more safe and secure conditions for human rights defenders. The Iraqi constitution allowed for freedom of expression, freedom of press and freedom of association and Iraq was proud to be a leader in freedoms in the region. Networking among human rights defenders was not yet recognised in Iraq and those kinds of activities were carried out through different human rights organizations. However, the Government was putting efforts to setting up a network for human rights defenders, media and scholars and all others who wanted to join the network. Iraq was also training human rights defenders so that they could defend rights and would also convene a national conference to announce this network.

DICKY KOMAR (Indonesia) said that the support and protection of women rights defenders was an important issue which had justifiably merited the special focus of the Special Rapporteur in her report. Indonesia shared the recommendation of the Special Rapporteur for Governments to better protect women human rights defenders, and all those working on women’s rights or gender issues, from violations by all actors. The Indonesian Government had, throughout the past decade reform, worked to ensure that the working environment for women human rights defenders was safe, tolerant and founded upon a fundamental recognition of human rights. Turning to the report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Indonesia said that freedom of religion and belief was an issue of great relevance to the country, which prided itself on its multi-ethnic, multi-religious and tolerant character. As the Special Rapporteur would testify, all countries faced challenges in combating intolerance and related violence and Indonesia was no exception.

MARKO HAM (Slovenia) said that Slovenia welcomed the report by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and would like to ask about possible plans of cooperation with relevant Special Procedures mandate holders, including the soon to be functioning Women’s Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, in order to provide for synergy of work. Slovenia wished to express its regret that 25 years after establishing the mandate on freedom of religion or belief, the Human Rights Council could not take more time to deal with this report, especially in light of attacks targeting religious groups in various countries across the world in the last months. Slovenia would like to ask the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief for his proposals on how the recommendations in his report could be efficiently implemented and would like to know his plans for upcoming county visits.

MOHAMMED ZAREIAN (Iran) said that while paying great attention to the women’s issues and with firm belief in their unique role, Iran had made various efforts in order to enhance the status of women and over the past 32 years had made many positive developments, particularly in the area of education. On the other hand, while adhering to religious teachings and observing the principles of spirituality, moderation and family foundation consolidation, Iran had managed to provide an environment conducive to the growth and enhancement of women’s status and their activities in various fields. With regard to the issues such as the risk of arrest or legal action for women human rights defenders and those working on women’s or gender issues, it was to be mentioned that the judicial system of Iran, being independent of executive and legislative branches, was based on the principles of equality before the law, the right to legal council, presumption of innocence, the right to open trial, impartiality of judges, and no punishment for unexpressed offence by law and prohibition of illegal arrests were reflected in the Citizenship Law. According to a mechanism established in each province, an office had been created to protect the rights of women and children.

ROSETTE NYIRINKINDI KATUNGYE (Uganda) said that Uganda was particularly sensitive to the challenges faced by women human rights defenders, and others who advocated on women and gender issues. Uganda welcomed the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur on the strategies adopted to ensure that enhanced protection was afforded to the specific and vulnerable situation of women. Their concerns on the particular situation of women rights defenders stemmed from the fact that it appeared to be blurred with the question of orientation. Uganda would appreciate the Special Rapporteur’s clarification on the distinction between the two groups. Regarding the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Uganda wished to take cognizance of the vital work of Mr. Bielefeldt and took note with interest of the conclusions, analyses and recommendations on the issue of freedom of religion and belief, in the context of education.

CLAIRE HUBERT (Norway) said Norway would like to ask the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders to elaborate on how States could improve the working environment and protection of human rights defenders. In particular, had the Special Rapporteur identified best practices, including a gender perspective in protection programmes? The report mentioned that women human rights defenders in many parts of the world had their families targeted and that this seemed to be a phenomenon on the increase; could the Special Rapporteur elaborate on the repercussions this had for the work of women human rights defenders, and as such, for society as a whole. Norway expressed its recognition to Armenia for receiving the Special Rapporteur and sincerely hoped other countries would follow Armenia’s good example.

Norway agreed with the report from the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and welcomed the gender specific recommendations in the report and would like to ask the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on the challenges but also strengths in maintaining a strong gender focus in the field of freedom of religion or belief.

JIANG YINGFENG (China) said that China took note by the reports of the Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders and on freedom of religion or belief. China attached great importance to the role played by individuals and non-governmental organizations, particularly on poverty alleviation and development. Their activities were supported by the Government. Every year China awarded a special prize to individuals who played a role in promoting law and order. China warned that sources of information of allegations of torture of women human rights defenders must be carefully examined and added that conclusions reached solely on the basis of allegations were not credible. China appreciated in-depth investigation of links between school education and freedom of religion or belief and said that schools should address the diversity of religion or belief. Schools and other public institutions in China did not teach religion and did not allow religion to interfere with learning of the compulsory school curricula, but schools fully respected students’ religious beliefs.

BASSEL SALAH AHMED (Egypt) said Egypt welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s conclusion that schools may offer unique possibilities for constructive dialogue among all parts of society and that human rights education could contribute to the elimination of negative stereotypes. They also welcomed his reiteration on the role of parents and families as an essential factor in the education of children in the field of religion or belief. Turning to Ms. Sekaggya’s report, which focused on the important issue of the situation of women human rights defenders, Egypt noted that the report included some important conclusions and recommendations as the one recommending national human rights institutions to integrate a gender dimension in the planning and implementation of all programmes and other interventions related to human rights defenders. Nevertheless, Egypt pointed out the fact that there was a clear approach in the report to put more focus on the work of women human rights defenders on issues relating to certain notions falling outside universally agreed human rights, and the country drew her attention that such an approach was not conducive to the desired aim of protecting and enhancing the situation of human rights defenders.

VALERIA ARRIAGA MEJIA (Honduras) said Honduras viewed with concern that women human rights defenders were most exposed to murders. The county was aware that it should draw a distinction between different risks to human rights defenders based on gender but it was in the early stages of implementing such policies. The Government had extended an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and was pleased that she would be visiting the country in September.

THOMAS HANETER (Switzerland) said Switzerland appreciated the pragmatic view of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on the issue of living together and eliminating religious discrimination. The recommendations put forward by the Special Rapporteur were promising. There were still too many stereotypes and prejudices in public debates, and eradicating those was vital in contributing to the prevention of the violence targeting religious minorities. It was through education, training and awareness raising that human rights could be fully respected. Switzerland encouraged the Special Rapporteur to consider various initiatives put forward by the Alliance of Civilisations. The recent murder of the Pakistani Religious Minorities Minister was an evidence of what the world had to cope with today. Switzerland asked the Special Rapporteur about the measures to develop multicultural societies where interfaith dialogue was encouraged, including for the generations which were no longer at school. Human rights defenders played an important role in the implementation of human rights and Switzerland was actively seeking to increase their protection. Women human rights defenders were stigmatised politically, but also on the basis of their gender. Switzerland asked what strategies could be adopted to overcome stigmatisation based on sex, which was so deeply rooted in so many societies. More must be done to protect women human rights defenders and those who worked on the promotion and protection of women’s and gender issues and Switzerland supported the extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.

VICENTE ZERAN (Chile) said Chile thanked the Special Rapporteurs for their presentations and supported the work being done. Referring to the work of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Chile said that human rights defenders helped to ensure the freedom of people, particularly those belonging to vulnerable groups. Unfortunately human rights defenders faced threats and Chile was in favour of the Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders and of the constant work to promote the work of human rights defenders. The Special Rapporteur was focused on the activities to promote gender issues and Chile was obliged to monitor these situations and welcomed the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur and her suggestions. The most vital suggestions were: recognizing the work of human rights defenders in consolidating a pluralist society; protecting them from violations by States and non State actors; and making sure that these violations were investigated.

ANDREI TARANDA (Belarus) said Belarus supported the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the most important work of the Rapporteur should be with governments to increase their work in creating tolerance in a diverse and multi-culture environment and encouraged the Special Rapporteur to pay attention to this line of work to prevent a decline, as observed in some European Union countries, on these areas. Belarus would like the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders to adopt a more critical approach to the information that was being submitted to her and urged that facts should be based on credible, verifiable data. Belarus condemned Polish comments on Belarus and thought it was inappropriate to identify one country out of a list of 175 that the Special Rapporteur had dealt with.

MOHAMMED SAMIR KOUBAA (Tunisia) said human rights defenders without any doubt played an important role in the promotion and protection of human rights by noting excesses and violations. Tunisia had started a new decisive part of its history and was determined to break with decadent practices and to fulfil the dreams of Tunisian people for democracy based on respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights. A general amnesty had been announced in Tunisia and thousands of political prisoners had been freed and a number of non-governmental organizations and humanitarian organizations had already been able to visit prisons. Tunisia had also launched a consultative process for the upcoming constitutional reforms.

NICOLA FREEDMAN (United Kingdom) said the United Kingdom thanked both Special Rapporteurs for their reports and presentations. Regarding the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, the United Kingdom expressed strong support for her mandate and in particular her co-operation with other Special Rapporteurs and regional mechanisms to promote and protect human rights defenders. The United Kingdom remained deeply concerned about the situation of human rights defenders around the world as they continued to face the risk of harassment, arrest, detention or death. They were particularly concerned about human rights defenders in Belarus, Libya, Iran and Côte d’Ivoire, where seven women were killed during a peaceful demonstration last week. The United Kingdom agreed with the Special Rapporteur that non-state actors could and had to be held accountable for the criminal offences they committed against human rights defenders. However, as they had previously stated, under international law States were responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and were responsible for all violations.

YANNICK MINSIER (Belgium) said Belgium welcomed the activities of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the quality of the report on this freedom and school situations. Belgium stressed that schools assured the right to education whatever their beliefs or religions and believed they should play an important role in promoting dialogue and acceptance of different religious beliefs, including the right not to have a religious belief. Belgium would like to ask what criteria the Special Rappporteur would use to evaluate the programmes of teaching religion and religious instruction. Belgium would also like to know which countries the Special Rapporteur planned to visit and which had not responded to his requests.

LUCY RICHARDSON (New Zealand) thanked the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders for her report and recalled that, while all human rights defenders were exposed to risks, threat of violence, including sexual violence, was greater for women human rights defenders or for those working on women or gender issues. New Zealand considered the report helpful, particularly the section on international law and noted that despite the legal prescriptions, women human rights defenders continued to be victims of human rights violations. There remained a large number of outstanding requests for country visits and New Zealand encouraged all States to give those requests due consideration and in a timely manner.

JELISAVETA DJURICKOVIC-TUVIC (Serbia) said Serbia attached the utmost importance to human rights and their protection. This was evidenced both at the legislative as well as the policy levels. Yet, major challenges and risks which human rights defenders faced in Serbia rested mainly on the lack of understanding from conservative and traditionalist circles of the society. Similar problems were experienced by persons who were promoting rights of women and sexual minorities, in particular. Serbia had launched several initiatives intended to promote tolerance and raise public awareness regarding human rights. In all cases in which human rights defenders considered they were being threatened, they could address the Ministry of Interior; or they could file criminal offences with the Public Prosecutor. They could also address their concerns to the Office of the Ombudsman at the republic, provincial and local levels as well as the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality. However, further efforts were needed on the legislative, policy and institutional plans both at the preventive and reactive ends.

VIVIAN MATHILDE KUIJPERS (Denmark) said that Denmark welcomed the vital report from the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and Denmark would like to ask her to elaborate on what kind of national protection mechanisms could be found to address the particular challenges and needs to protect women human rights defenders. And could the Special Rapporteur provide a concrete example of an effective national protection mechanism. Denmark appreciated the work of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and would like to ask three questions. First, how would the Special Rapporteur use the Universal Periodic Review recommendations in the follow-up procedure of country visits and would he see any scope for a more systematic link between the Universal Periodic Review, Special Procedures and the recommendations in his report? Second, textbooks used for providing information on religions in school education fell far behind the requirement of neutrality, could the Special Rapporteur elaborate on how to overcome this challenge. Third, what could be done to ensure that students’ interaction could take place in a spirit of open-mindedness, respect and fairness?

MARK HORVATH (Hungary) said that the communications in the report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief correctly reflected the information about Hungarian media legislation. The communication sent in January by the two Special Rapporteurs with regard to Hungarian media legislation had been taken seriously by the authorities and the Government had provided a detailed reply to the concerns raised by the two mandate-holders. A high-level meeting had been then organised in February with the two Special Rapporteurs, after which the Government had invited then to visit the country in April. Hungary hoped that this technical mission would contribute to the better understanding of the complex legal environment. The Government had reached an agreement with the European Commission on the amendments and clarifications to the media law and those would be adopted during this week by the Hungarian Parliament. The amendments would cover four main areas on the question of balanced coverage, proceedings against media content providers resident in other European Union Member States, prohibition of insulting any community, and the registration of media services.

RANA AL-MULAIFI (Kuwait) said Kuwait appreciated the efforts of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and felt alarming concern about the harassment of Muslims. The constitution of Kuwait assured the rights of individuals to share their beliefs and to have respect for their dignity and humanity and believed that the spread of religious tolerance among people of the world must be respected on a basis of equality. Kuwait noted the role of the family in establishing religious values, moral values and the principle of shared justice which all religions called for. Kuwait was determined to prevent campaigns designed to undermine opportunities for peaceful coexistence between people.
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For use of the information media; not an official record