GENEVA (20 June 2014) – Three United Nations experts on freedom of religion, minority issues and human rights in Myanmar today call on the Government of Myanmar to discard the draft bill on ‘Religious Conversion’ that may result in the arbitrary denial of the right to change or adopt a religion or belief in the country.
The human rights experts warned that the draft bill, made public on 27 May 2014 inviting comments from monks and the public, sets out a cumbersome application and approval process for conversion while purporting to make it easier for individuals to freely convert. It also provides for disproportionate criminal sanctions on offenders.
Moreover, some provisions are vague and subject to interpretation that may lead to discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities or the poor.
“Seeking comments from the public on draft legislation is commendable in promoting political participation of the people,” the experts said. “But in this instance, this process appears partial to the interest of one particular group and simply propagates the spread of incitement of racial and religious hatred, which the Government must do more to address.”
The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, noted that “State interferences into the right to change one’s religion or belief are per se illegitimate and incompatible with international human rights standards.”
“Freedom of religion or belief is a human right, irrespective of State approval, and respect for freedom of religion or belief does not depend on administrative registration procedures,” Mr. Bielefeldt stressed. “I am very disturbed by the attempt to regulate religious conversion.”
The Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák, drew special attention over the potential for this bill to impact negatively on religious freedoms and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
“I urge Myanmar to strengthen its protections in line with international standards not to create obstacles to the enjoyment of religious identity, minority rights, and the right of every individual to freely choose or to change their faith,” Ms. Izsák said.
“We have seen some worrying backtracking on Myanmar’s progress towards a more democratic nation in the last six months, including through the arbitrary arrest and the prosecution of activists and journalists deemed anti-establishment,” stated the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee.
Ms. Lee warned this draft bill -one of four composing a legislative package on the protection of race and religion- “signals the risk of Myanmar going off-track on its path to being a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights.”
The United Nations human rights experts are part of what it is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.
They are charged by the Human Rights Council to monitor, report and advise on human rights issues. Currently, there are 37 thematic mandates and 14 mandates related to countries and territories, with 72 mandate holders. Three new mandates were added in March 2014. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. Log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx
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