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States must act now to enable people to enjoy freedom of religion, says UN expert

Geneva (7 March 2017) – Countries around the world are being urged to act now to promote and protect the right to freedom of religion or belief, by a United Nations expert.

The appeal by the Special Rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, was made at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where Mr. Shaheed has been setting out his priorities for the mandate of “freedom of religion and belief” which he took up last November.

Mr. Shaheed expressed concern about a rise in the number of incidents of incitement to hatred, hostility, discrimination or violence based on religion or belief as well as, hate crimes by extremist groups, vigilante mobs and others.

“State and non-State actors, alike, continue to impose restrictions (or limitations) and engage in targeted harassment, intimidation of, or discrimination against religious minorities, unrecognized religious communities and dissidents, who are often confronted with threats to their freedom, safety and security,” Mr. Shaheed said. 

“I am particularly alarmed by continuing reports of mass atrocities and violence that threaten the very existence of religious minority communities, including some groups that have existed for over two millennia.”

Mr. Shaheed pointed to a number of mechanisms for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief that have already been developed and for which consensus among states already exists. 

He said his agenda for the next three years would be focused on the implementation of state obligations to promote respect for freedom of religion or belief and for which he would seek support from member states and civil society in the coming months. The Rapporteur's agenda also endeavours to promote literacy about what the right to freedom of religion or belief means.

He said: “increased  moves by some states to impose security clampdowns as a means of responding to violence in the name of religion further compounds the corrosive conditions that already undermine the right to freedom of religion or belief.”

Mr. Shaheed stressed that policies adopted to enhance the capacity of security forces to combat terrorism by limiting fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, often have dire consequences for the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

He welcomed efforts being made to promote the right to freedom of religion or belief at national and international levels by Governments, parliamentarians, national human rights institutions, human rights and faith-based organizations as well as educational institutions. 

“These entities,” he said, “have raised international awareness about the challenges to the realization of freedom of religion or belief, encouraged positive State actions, fostered interfaith dialogue, and created networks of government and civil society around the issue. These efforts can be harnessed to support even more effective implementation of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

“Civil society plays a useful and critical role in building bridges and trust between and among diverse stakeholders, especially given the polarized nature of debates surrounding the right to freedom of religion or belief. It is important that we continue to support cross-boundary and interdisciplinary efforts to help promote efforts to realize this right,” he said.  

The Special Rapporteur looked forward to working with a range of government, civil society actors and religious or belief community leaders to foster new relationships and to strengthen existing ones with the aim of achieving a more widespread implementation of laws allowing the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Mr. Shaheed also presented a report on his predecessor’s visit to Denmark from 13 to 22 March 2016.

(*) You can read the Special Rapporteur’s report here.

Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. The mandate holder has been invited to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ 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.

For further information and media requests, please contact: Maken Tzeggai (+41 22 917 9889 / mtzeggai@ohchr.org),

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Bryan Wilson – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / mediaconsultant1@ohchr.org

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