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Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to Human Rights Council: Islamophobia is a Result of Structural Discrimination Stemming from Negative Stereotypes

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4 March 2021

4 March 2021

Council Concludes Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on the Effects of Foreign Debt

The Human Rights Council this morning started an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on his report on countering Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred to eliminate discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief.  The Council also concluded the interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt.

Ahmad Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, highlighted that expressions of discrimination, hostility and violence motivated by anti-Muslim bias were serious obstacles to the enjoyment of human rights.  The dangers of Islamophobia were manifested through violent attacks against Muslims across the globe, with the majority of the human rights violations often gaining little media attention.  Entrenched and widespread essentialisations that depicted Muslims as cultural “others” validated discrimination.  Evidence gathered for the report made clear that Islamophobia was a function of structural discrimination stemming from negative stereotypes.  The report recalled State duties under international law to eliminate all forms of discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief and emphasised a human rights response to Islamophobia. 

In the ensuing discussion, speakers expressed concern about the alarming rise of Islamophobic incidents in a number of countries, in the form of online hate, restrictions, exclusion and governmental persecutions, as well as the stigmatisation of Muslim women.  Policies aimed at fighting anti-Muslim hatred must be an integral part of promoting the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda, and involve efforts in the areas of teaching, education, media platforms, integration, social inclusion policies, employment and non-discrimination.  After 9/11, Islamophobia had become more pervasive and systematic, infringing on the fundamental rights and freedoms of Muslims around the world.  The surge in anti-Muslim hatred bore deep imprints of an ‘imperialist mindset’, and the State-sponsorship of an entire Islamophobic ecosystem had emerged as a disturbing contemporary reality. 

Speaking were Canada, European Union, Pakistan on behalf of Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Brazil on behalf of a group of countries, Iceland on behalf of Nordic and Baltic countries, Libya on behalf of the Group of Arab States, Qatar, Israel, Greece, Jordan, Malaysia, Slovenia, State of Palestine, France, Sovereign Order of Malta, Togo, Libya, Russian Federation, Iraq, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Netherlands, Venezuela, India, Morocco, Iran, Malta, United States of America, Egypt, Bahrain, Senegal, Cameroon, Nepal, Algeria, China, Croatia, Albania, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Italy, Poland, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Fiji, United Kingdom, Sudan, Cuba, Turkey, Bangladesh, Ireland, Georgia, Bulgaria, Holy See, Slovakia, Hungary, Belgium, Cambodia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Mauritania, Syria, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka and Eritrea.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: World Jewish Congress, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council resumed its interactive dialogue with Yuefen Li, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt.  The interactive dialogue on foreign debt started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

In the discussion, speakers noted that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the fiscal capacities of many countries were at a high risk and were already in distress.  Credit rating agencies downgraded countries’ status purely because governments increased expenditure to help their populations bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, strengthening their health care systems while often losing revenue - this was immoral.  Moreover, international funding to least developed countries was often provided only in the form of loans rather than grants, forcing them to choose between poverty and burdensome debt - this raised many human rights concerns and had to change.

In her concluding remarks, the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt said that in order to allow for greater transparency from the credit rating agencies, it would be important for governments to ask them to reveal their methodologies for assessments.  However, doing so would not be a substitute for a reform of the credit rating agencies.  Listening to the advice on debt cancellation and debt restructuring of some delegations was important for tackling the issue of heavy debt burden.  High levels of public and private debt were a vicious circle decreasing fiscal space for proper health policies and economic recovery. 

Speaking were Indonesia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Venezuela, Iran, South Africa, Pakistan, Egypt, Cameroon, China, Chad, Fiji, Botswana, Ethiopia, Sudan, Cuba, Holy See, Angola and Tunisia.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Caritas Internationalis (International Confederation of Catholic Charities), Action Canada for Population and Development, Justiça Global, Human Rights Advocates Inc., Centre for China & Globalization Limited, China Society for Human Rights Studies, and World Barua Organization.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here.  All meeting summaries can be found here.  Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-sixth regular session can be found here.

The Council will next meet in public at 3 p.m. to resume the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, followed by an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.  The interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief will resume on Friday, 5 March at 10 a.m.

Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on the Effects of Foreign Debt

The interactive dialogue with Yuefen Li, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt, started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Interactive Discussion

Speakers noted that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries’ fiscal capacities were at a high risk and were already in distress.  The Independent Expert’s views on how to galvanise more efforts for global recovery and create a stronger foundation for everyone to enjoy their human rights were welcomed.  COVID-19 had caused loss of income and employment, slowed down economies, and created negative social impact.  Credit rating agencies downgraded countries’ status purely because governments increased expenditure to help their populations bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, strengthening their health care systems while often losing revenue - this was immoral.  These companies must be held responsible for their operations that lacked transparency, and there was no standardised methodology for their work.  Moreover, international funding to least developed countries was often provided only in the form of loans rather than grants, forcing them to choose between poverty and burdensome debt - this raised many human rights concerns and had to change.  As such, speakers welcomed the Debt Service Suspension Initiative for low-income countries.

Interim Remarks

YUEFEN LI, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt, thanked Egypt for its invitation and shared deep concerns expressed by Cameroon on the rising debt level in Africa and rising poverty and widening of inequality.  Credit rating agencies had an important role to play in the prevention of debt rise as they could determine the cost of borrowing.  When there was a debt crisis the credit rating outlooks would influence the borrowers on the international financial market.  The impact of credit ranking of agencies varied, for the poorer and developing countries and countries with less monetary space, the impact had been great.  Debt increase reflected the regression in the enjoyment of human rights.  There was a call for the reform of the international debt architecture, and credit rating agencies had to be included in this reform. 

Interactive Discussion

Speakers noted that the integrity and sovereignty of all States must be respected, showing their support for the principle of sustainability and strengthening the capacity of beneficiary countries.  More substantive steps towards debt cancellation for the poorest countries had to take place.  Many speakers stated that they supported all the recommendations issued by the Independent Expert, especially with regards to the reform of accountability of credit rating agencies and putting people first.  Speakers also noted that the debt crisis was not simply a financial matter for the States - it negatively affected social and cultural rights in general, and worsened the situations of people living in poverty, indigenous peoples and others.  Achieving human rights progress while suffering from the burden of overbearing debt was not an easy task for developing countries - a quantum leap in financial support was needed.  Vulture funds were freely continuing their predatory practices, excessively increasing States’ debt burdens, and thriving during crises like the one caused by COVID-19 - they had to be regulated.  A multilateral regulatory framework for selling and purchasing of debt in particular was required.  

Concluding Remarks

YUEFEN LI, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt, noted that in order to allow for greater transparency from the credit rating agencies, it would be important for governments to ask the credit rating agencies to reveal their methodologies for assessments.  Doing so would not be a substitute for a reform of the credit rating agencies.  Listening to the advice on debt cancellation and debt restructuring of some delegations was important for tackling the issue of heavy debt burden.  High levels of public and private debt were a vicious circle that decreased fiscal space for proper health policies and economic recovery. 

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Report

The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief A/HRC/46/30 on countering Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred to eliminate discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief

Presentation of Report

AHMAD SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, highlighted that expressions of discrimination, hostility and violence motivated by anti-Muslim bias were serious obstacles to the enjoyment of human rights.  The dangers of Islamophobia were manifested through violent attacks against Muslims across the globe, with the majority of the human rights violations often gaining little media attention.  Entrenched and widespread essentialisations that depicted Muslims as cultural “others” validated discrimination.  The report confirmed the alarming rise of right-wing extremist groups that peddled conspiracy theories about Muslims and that increasingly transcended borders by propagating hate online.  This extended to media, academia, schools, healthcare settings and parliamentary bodies, with Muslim men cast as violent and sexist, while Muslim women oscillated between victims in need of rescue and terrorists hidden behind a veil.

Evidence gathered for this report made clear that Islamophobia was a function of structural discrimination stemming from negative stereotypes.  The report recalled State duties under international law to eliminate all forms of discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief and emphasised a human rights response to Islamophobia.  Nothing in the report suggested that the high threshold to impose limits on free speech should be lowered.  To operationalise the human rights duties of States, Mr. Shaheed offered several practical recommendations to States, civil society, the media and Internet companies, employers and the United Nations system to work with Muslims, rather than on Muslims, to address and mitigate the impacts of Islamophobia.  In a world of intensifying bigotry against all who were ‘different’ from the preferred norms of the powerful, everyone must hold accountable those who sought to divide, and affirm the equality of all regardless of their religion or belief. 

Interactive Discussion

In the discussion, speakers expressed concern about the alarming rise of Islamophobic incidents in a number of countries in the form of online hate, restrictions, exclusion and governmental persecution, as well as the stigmatisation of Muslim women.  Policies aimed at fighting anti-Muslim hatred must be an integral part of promoting the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda, and involve efforts in the areas of teaching, education, media platforms, integration, social inclusion policies, employment and non-discrimination.  After 9/11, Islamophobia had become more pervasive and systematic, infringing on the fundamental rights and freedoms of Muslims around the world.  The surge in anti-Muslim hatred bore deep imprints of an ‘imperialist mindset’, and the State-sponsorship of an entire Islamophobic ecosystem had emerged as a disturbing contemporary reality.  Unregulated social media platforms had further amplified and reinforced negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of Muslims.  How could Member States collaborate more closely to combat Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred on the international stage?  A definition and a legally binding agreement on Islamophobia were needed in times when the human rights of Muslims were violated on a daily level.  There were explicit policies and laws in place in some countries targeting Muslims because of their religion, and the situation of women was particularly concerning.

Interim Remarks

AHMAD SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, stressed that the perceived conflict between freedom of expression and discrimination was a fake one, and the report was not about the cartoons.  Hateful discourse became hateful when there was inequality involved and it was used to dehumanise other people.  The problem was not defining Islamophobia, the problem was defining and countering violent extremism as it was done in such a broad and vague manner.  Strong, non-discriminative provisions needed to be incorporated within the countering of violent extremism policies as well. 

Interactive Discussion

Speakers highlighted national measures that their countries had instituted to protect Muslim minority communities, such as promoting interfaith dialogues.  What could the Council do to help States ensure that both secular and religious cultures could co-exist and thrive?  The rise of Islamophobic rhetoric wrongly considered Islam as a political ideology that was dangerous to Western civilization, a point of view that ignored the cultural and scientific contributions to humanity by Islamic civilizations throughout history.  Other speakers noted that it was important to strike a balance between security and freedom of religion.  The report did not adequately consider the overall context of persecution of all persons of faith; limiting the topic to one particular group risked being divisive, facilitating a we-vs-them mentality and creating more conflict.  The campaign against Islamophobia would be more effective if Muslims, Christians, Jews and other religious communities united to fight religious discrimination together.  Speakers noted that anti-Muslim discrimination was often insidious and took the guise of anti-terrorism measures.  Speakers called for the release of all conscientious objectors.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/03/special-rapporteur-freedom-religion-or-belief-human-rights


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