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Key Note address of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Religious Minorities and Human Rights: An Urgent Agenda

New York, 27 September 2012

Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Few can doubt the perception that the number of attacks on religious minorities around the world is rising. This should serve as a wake-up call and prompt reinforced efforts to combat intolerance and discrimination. I am pleased to see important new initiatives aimed at addressing this crucial problem, including today’s workshop, and I wish to express my appreciation to the Government of Italy for organising this timely discussion.

On a daily basis, we hear reports of inter-religious tension and violence, often aggravated by irresponsible provocations. The recent despicable anti-Muslim video and its violent aftermath are the latest sad reminder of how small extremist pockets aim to damage inter-religious relations through acts that ultimately hurt the human rights of all.

In many cases, it is not only private individuals who provoke and contribute to such tension. Negative stereotyping of members of different religions in some media and by extremist political parties continues at an alarming pace, and unfortunately, all regions in the world are stained by this shameful practice. Efforts to ensure the protection of religious minorities must thus be global and inclusive.

The Human Rights Framework

Ladies and gentlemen,

How are we to combat these practices? While our human rights toolbox contains no easy one-size-fits-all solutions, international human rights law and mechanisms do provide us with the framework and guidance to build models that respect freedom of religion, minority rights, freedom of expression and other human rights, in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other key instruments. Particularly relevant to this discussion is the intersection between articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR, which provides a legal framework that protects all forms of expression, while at the same time allowing States the possibility to impose restrictions that are provided by law and which are necessary for the respect of the rights and reputations of others.

UN treaty bodies, special procedures and the expert workshops that my Office has organized have developed further guidance on how to combat incitement to national, ethnic or religious hatred while fully respecting freedom of expression. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has also issued practical recommendations on key concerns of religious minorities, for example, on ensuring fair, inclusive and non-discriminatory registration procedures for religious organizations and on the impact of the concept of “state religion” on religious minorities.

I also wish to highlight the relevance of minority rights standards and mechanisms. Modern minority rights discourse has often focused on national, ethnic and linguistic minorities. Yet we must recall that Article 27 of the ICCPR and the UN Declaration on Minorities also covers religious minorities, providing them with valuable guarantees and protections, including in terms of participation in decision-making. The need for such guarantees is indeed one of the main concerns of religious minorities - or in some cases non-dominant religious majorities - and addressing that concern is often a sine qua non for fixing other human rights problems.

Furthermore, let us remember that article 18 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also protects the right not to profess any religion or belief.

Civil society

It is important that the State sets the tone of tolerance and respect, and ensures that its legislative and policy frameworks do not negatively impact certain groups within society. Laws and policies are often unduly tilted against non-dominant religious groups, and studies suggest that legal restrictions on religious activities are on the rise. Indeed, States must also actively work to prevent violations; as Article 4 of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief stresses, “States shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief”.

But the State cannot act alone. It is equally important that civil society and minority representatives are fully involved in the development, implementation and evaluation of national policies and strategies on religious minorities and are part of open discussions about the role of religion and beliefs in our societies. Not only should representatives of religious minorities and majorities, including women representatives, be participants in such discussions, but it is also vital to involve society at large, including human rights organisations. This will help ensure that solutions sought are rooted in human rights, ranging from minority rights to women’s rights.

Education

The role of education is another crucial theme of this workshop. It is essential that schools enhance dialogue rather than division amongst pupils. This could involve school curricula and textbooks on history and other topics that reflect religious diversity. Moreover, human rights education for girls and boys that begins at a tender age can play an important role in bridging differences and combating stereotypes that so easily pass from generation to generation. This is beneficial in all contexts, but particularly urgent for children in countries that have experienced sectarian conflict.

Role of the UN

Combating discrimination is a thematic priority of my office and we seek to support states and civil society in their efforts in this regard, for example by assisting States to draw up national action plans against discrimination. In addition, this year we are marking the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Minority Rights with a range of initiatives, such as the expert seminar we organized in May with the Government of Austria to enhance the effectiveness of human rights mechanisms in protecting the rights of religious minorities.

Discrimination and protection of minority rights affect all three pillars of the UN and thus the entire UN system should consolidate its efforts in this area. Indeed, in March 2012, the Secretary-General created a UN Network on Racial Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Coordinated by OHCHR, the Network facilitates collaboration between UN entities, builds guidance and helps ensure that concerns of religious minorities are consistently reflected in the UN’s work, ranging from development to peace-building.

Conclusions

Ladies and gentlemen,

Much work remains to be done to ensure respect for freedom of religion or belief and protection of the rights of religious minorities, and this requires strong commitment at the international, regional and national levels.

By remaining vigilant about religious freedom, by actively promoting respect for all religions and groups through education and awareness raising; by standing up for victims of discrimination; by reaching out to religious minority groups, we can build the understanding and trust necessary to create more peaceful and stable societies.
There are those who work against this agenda and try to provoke tension. Let us ensure that such isolated voices do not distract us from pursuing our goal of building inclusive societies that respect human rights – a goal that is crucial for both majority and minority communities.

Thank you.