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2017 Annual Trygve Lie Symposium on Fundamental Freedoms Promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

21 September 2017

Excellencies,
Colleagues, Friends,

Humanity has, throughout history, found comfort and guidance in religious and ethical systems of thought. These have also been among the roots of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. But the link between our modern thinking on human rights and diversity of religion and belief is not only historical. Without the freedom to believe there is no freedom of thought. In other words, without this essential human right, other human rights may be in jeopardy. This is what we mean, when we say that human rights are interdependent, interrelated and indivisible.

Like everyone here, I am fully aware that individuals have often instrumentalised religious beliefs to divide, exclude, persecute and kill. But I am convinced that religious leaders, with their considerable influence over the hearts and minds of millions of people, can be consequential human rights actors in the world today. While refraining from politicizing religious beliefs, they, can – and should – have real positive impact on the human rights landscape.

Over the past year my Office has organised a series of meetings among faith-based and civil society actors, seeking to help them establish a respectful common ground on essential principles of human dignity, equality and justice. In March, they adopted the Beirut Declaration and its 18 commitments on “Faith for Rights”. I'm grateful for the support of the Government of Morocco to this initiative. It aims to foster peaceful societies, which uphold diversity of belief, behaviour and thought as an intrinsic and inalienable right of all their people.

Respect for religious diversity is threatened today, in an increasing number of societies, both by the rise of violent religious extremists and by a wave of isolationist, nationalistic thinking. Both these trends threaten religious and ethnic minorities with heightened discrimination, and even violence. Daech inflicts genocide on the Yazidis. The Rohingya of Myanmar suffer what appears to be ethnic cleansing. In a number of other countries, religious minorities justifiably fear extreme violence and persecution. In others, they face marginalisation, humiliation, unfair access to basic services.

Clearly every situation is different. But always, to foster trust between communities, as well as mutual reliance and cooperation, requires a deep and broad effort of education; far-sighted leadership; and justice, based on the equality of all before the law. To build trust in a shared future, structural injustices in politics, law, the economy and basic services must be addressed. To achieve this requires a broad civil society space. Crucially, religious and other minorities must be free to participate fully in all areas of society – although it must also be clear that they should not impose their beliefs on others.

The struggle against discrimination is at the heart of the human rights agenda, and it can be supported by interventions across the whole spectrum of rights : civil, cultural, economic, political and social measures which come together to support justice, human dignity, and equality.