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15 June 2007

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Asma Jahangir, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of the United Nations Human Rights Council, made the following statement on 15 June 2007 in London at the end of her visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland:

“In July 2004, I was appointed Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. My mandate is to examine incidents and governmental actions in all parts of the world which are inconsistent with the provisions of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, and to recommend remedial measures for such situations. In the framework of my mandate, I receive individual complaints which are documented in my communications report. Furthermore, I undertake visits to several countries per year where I can get first-hand impressions and develop some issues in more depth.

At the invitation of the Government, I have visited the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 4 to 15 June 2007. During my visit I had the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister, senior politicians and Government officials responsible for religious matters. In addition, I talked with representatives of religious and belief organizations, non-governmental organizations of relevance to my mandate as well as academics and individuals. These talks were held in London, Birmingham, Bradford, Glasgow and Belfast. Furthermore, I visited a school, a prison and an immigration removal center.

The reasons for conducting the UK visit were manifold. Firstly, the situation in the United Kingdom has a special significance and interest for my mandate. The United Kingdom has historically been home and safe harbour for those persecuted on religious grounds. It features a multi-cultural and multi-religious society, which poses a number of challenges in celebrating its diversity and yet ensuring that individual freedoms are protected, too. New pressures have arisen to review its immigration policies and I intended to examine whether these have affected victims of religious persecution who are coming from abroad. Secondly, there have been concerns about the situation of Muslims across the country in the aftermath of the tragic terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005. Consequently, I wanted to assess the situation in view of counter-terrorism legislation and the pressures on the society as a whole. Finally, the recent developments in Northern Ireland are of particular interest to my mandate.

I am very much impressed by the depth of knowledge and the ability of the UK Government in responding to difficult situations and tackling the contentious issues involved. There is a great wealth of experience in the United Kingdom in dealing with religious tensions and terrorist acts carried out under the cover of religion. There is a significant potential to draw some “lessons learnt” from the response to the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland and to address new challenges in devising counter-terrorism measures. In this regard, I would like to emphasize that the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms and human rights is vital for any democratic society.

Despite the overall respect for human rights and their value in this country, there are a few areas of concern with regard to freedom of religion or belief. Subsequent to recent terrorist attacks and threats, laws have been introduced which undermine the human rights of all and which are largely perceived to target the Muslim population in the United Kingdom. A discriminatory application of stop-and-search powers and religious profiling may ultimately prove to be counterproductive. Moreover, whilst I am conscious of the fact that States are obliged to take effective measures in combating terrorist attacks, I have received allegations of the abuse of counter-terrorism laws and in particular of provisions which make the failure to disclose information about acts of terrorism a criminal offence.

I have to admit that my stay in Northern Ireland was particularly impressive for me. After decades of violence, which claimed more than 3,500 lives on religious/political grounds, there seems to be now hope for a shared future. There are promising initiatives which seek to cross the sectarian divide among the Christians, both on political and on grassroots levels. However, there remain several contentious areas such as religious inequalities in the labour market, housing, education, policing and criminal justice agencies. It is also important not to forget the concerns of religious minorities in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it may be useful to take into account the perspectives of believers who are dispassionate about their faith and of secularists or humanists as well as of women. While there is no legal discrimination against women, yet many of them are in a vulnerable situation within their own communities. I believe that equality must be all-encompassing and the argument that traditions should override the rights of women is unacceptable.

On a general level in the United Kingdom, further issues of concern relate to the situation in schools concerning religious education and collective worship, religious symbols, blasphemy laws and interfaith dialogue. The balancing of competing rights may also be an issue of controversial debate, for example with regard to sexual orientation regulations and freedom of conscience. I am aware of the differences concerning the legal and institutional frameworks in England/Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; in my report I intend to discuss some of these aspects in greater detail.

World politics also has its repercussions at the domestic level, for example the impact of developments in the Middle East on the situation of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the number of asylum seekers has dropped dramatically in recent years, including those applying on grounds of religious persecution. Asylum claims are subject to rigid scrutiny and few applications are successful in the initial decision. In this regard, I have received reports that very demanding criteria need to be met in order to obtain asylum.

Finally, I was saddened to meet converts who face problems with the community of their former religion. While the right to change one’s religion is recognised by international human rights standards, some people seem to accept a conversion only when it involves a change into their own religion. Such an approach does not acknowledge diversity and infringes on freedom of religion or belief. In this regard, let me emphasize that theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief are protected.

I would like to thank everyone I met during my mission for the candidness with which they were willing to openly engage in the exchange of minds. Challenges are not unknown to the people of the United Kingdom and I have felt the endeavour to always take the discussion a step forward. My forthcoming country report to the Human Rights Council will deal with several issues concerning my mandate in more depth and it will also include conclusions and recommendations.”
For use of the information media; not an official record.