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Test of religious freedom in Lao PDR lies with tolerance extended to religious minorities, UN expert says

VIENTIANE (30 November 2009) – At the end of her mission to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Ms. Asma Jahangir concluded that “freedom of religion or belief, like any other human right, can only be fully enjoyed in an environment where there is a vigilant civil society, freedom of expression as well as independent institutions and rule of law.”
 
The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief emphasized that she had interacted both with Government officials and with citizens regarding issues of her mandate, however, some people admitted their self-censorship and hesitation in approaching the authorities in matters of religion.
 
During her country mission from 23 to 30 November 2009, Ms. Jahangir raised concerns at the serious allegations received by her mandate during the last ten years, for example with regard to arrests on the basis of religion or official campaigns aimed at forcing Christians to renounce their faith. Acknowledging that some incidents had indeed taken place in the past, the authorities assured her that fresh instructions had been passed down to the local administration level and that these incidents will not be tolerated in the future.
 
The Special Rapporteur very much welcomed the fact that the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has recently ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits religious discrimination and unreasonable restrictions on the movements of individuals, including in the exercise of religious freedom. Since some provisions of the Prime Ministerial Decree 92 for the Administration and Protection of Religious Activities are not in conformity with international human rights standards, the Special Rapporteur would recommend to review the relevant articles and to complement this decree with policy guidelines on its interpretation.
 
Ms. Jahangir also remains concerned regarding the isolation of religious minorities, who seem to have little or no access to higher education. She also referred to a “glass ceiling in terms of their promotion in public service and their effective participation in decision making.” The Special Rapporteur emphasized that members of religious minorities must not be marginalized and she expressed the hope that the growing awareness within the Government of respecting religious diversity will be sustained and fostered. “The test of freedom of religion or belief lies with the level of tolerance extended to religious minorities,” she added.
 
Ms. Jahangir will present her mission report with a detailed analysis and recommendations at the March 2010 session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.