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Statement of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, during the 25th session of the Human Rights Council

11 March 2014

Chairperson, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Manifestations of collective hatred poison the relationship between communities, threaten individuals and groups and are a source of innumerable human rights violations perpetrated by State agencies and/or non-State actors. They do not “erupt” like a volcano, but they are caused by human beings, whose actions or omissions can set in motion a seemingly unstoppable negative dynamic in societies. For instance, populist politicians attract followers by offering simplistic explanations for complex societal problems; advocates of hatred poison inter-group relations by stirring up resentment for short-sighted political or economic gains; lack of trust in public institutions may exacerbate an existing atmosphere of suspicion in society; and parts of the population may be all too willing to replace political common sense by the snappy slogans of hatred.

Hate-filled sentiments are often caused by a peculiar combination of fear and contempt which can trigger a vicious circle of mistrust, narrow-mindedness, collective hysteria, contempt-filled rumours and fear of imaginary conspiracies. This peculiar pattern of combined fear and contempt may result in numerous hate manifestations which often target members of religious minorities or individual dissenters who are imagined as clandestinely operating in the interest of foreign powers or otherwise exercising some pernicious influence. In response to these strangely linked sentiments of fear/paranoia and contempt, two sources of aggressiveness can merge into a toxic mix, i.e. aggressiveness stemming from imagined threats and aggressiveness stemming from the pretence of one’s own collective superiority.

Moreover, the likelihood of collective manifestations of religious hatred largely depends on the general climate in, and overall context of, a society. Aggravating political factors that further increase the likelihood of manifestations of collective religious hatred include (a) endemic corruption which typically undermines reasonable trust in public institutions, thus creating inward-looking mentalities and possibly also breeding collective narrow-mindedness; (b) an authoritarian political atmosphere stifling free and frank public debate, thus creating a “mentality of suspicion”, which may undermine trust between individuals and groups; and (c) harnessing of religion for the purposes of national identity politics, which typically leads to the political marginalization of religious minorities whose members may become easy scapegoats or subjects of prejudice and misperception. These three aggravating political circumstances often mutually reinforce one another, thus possibly further speeding up the vicious cycle of mistrust, narrow-mindedness, hysteria, scapegoating and rumours arousing contempt against certain religious or belief groups.

Assuming that collective hatred typically originates from strangely combined sentiments of unreasonable fear and contempt, policies of countering hatred must invest in trust-building based on universal respect for human dignity. Building trust with the purpose of overcoming unreasonable fears requires the establishment of well-functioning public institutions as well as encouraging and facilitating activities in the area of communication. By ensuring respect for all human beings as holders of profound, identity-shaping convictions, freedom of religion or belief plays a pivotal role in such anti-hatred-policies, both in the area of trust-building through public institutions as well as in the area of trust-building through communication.

Trust-building through public institutions presupposes that the State takes an active role as a trust-worthy guarantor of freedom of religion or belief for everyone. Dissolving any exclusivist arrangements in the State’s relation to religions or beliefs and overcoming all forms of instrumentalization of religion for the purposes of national identity politics serves as a precondition for providing an open, inclusive framework in which religious or belief-related pluralism can unfold freely and without discrimination.

Trust-building through communication implies at least three dimensions: (a) inter-group communication with the aim of replacing stereotypical perceptions and ascriptions by real experience and regular encounters with real human beings belonging to different religious or belief communities; (b) outreach activities by the State towards religious communities with the purpose of establishing trustful relations and communication channels that can be used in crisis situations, as part of contingency planning; and (c) the development of a public culture of open discourse in which rumours, stereotypes and misperceptions can be exposed to the test of public critical controversies. In all these dimensions States must take an active role in promoting respect for everyone’s freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

During the reporting period, I had opportunities to directly experience the beneficial impact of a highly developed culture of inter- and intra-religious communication, for instance during my country visit to Sierra Leone, where the Interreligious Council has become a key factor in a re-united country that until a decade ago had been torn by civil war. I found the open and amicable climate of interreligious cooperation in Sierra Leone – which not only includes Muslims and Christians but also very intra-religious groups, such as Sunnis, Ahamdis, Shias, Catholics, Anglicans and Evangelicals – quite remarkable. Likewise, during my visit to Jordan I met with many people from Government, religious communities and civil society organizations whose commitment in this field helps to keep the society together. Jordan thus provides a safe haven for religious pluralism in a region marked by increasing religious and sectarian tensions. In addition, I could witness the improved climate of interreligious communication and cooperation in Cyprus, when participating in the ground-breaking interreligious roundtables held in Nicosia in September 2013.

Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen, sentiments expressing hatred can escalate into real acts of discrimination, hostility or violence. This often happens as a result of deliberate incitement to such acts. The question of how States and other stakeholders should prevent, or react to, incidents motivated by hatred has attracted increased attention in the international community. In order to find appropriate solutions, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights conducted a series of regional expert workshops which finally produced the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

The Rabat Plan of Action places great emphasis on the need to uphold a climate of free communication and public discourse based on freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief and other freedoms. It establishes a high threshold for defining limitations on freedom of expression, for identifying incitement to hatred and for the application of article 20 of the ICCPR. This implies that restrictive legal measures can play an indispensable and yet only limited role in preventing or reacting to incidents of incitement. As a consequence, States and other stakeholders should develop holistic policies which also include non-restrictive and non-prohibitive activities. Indeed, one of the most remarkable messages contained in the Rabat Plan of Action is that what we require above all in order to prevent and respond to incidents of incitement to hatred are policies which promote a creative and productive use of freedom of expression. For instance, in order to challenge advocates of religious hatred in their claims to speak in the name of “the silent majority”, it is important that the majority does not remain silent. Civil society activities which visibly and audibly reject advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence can have very practical effects in discouraging such advocacy, while at the same time showing solidarity with their targets, who should not feel that they are isolated and unsupported. Emerging tensions in a given society may be defused, for example, if religious leaders clearly affirm the importance of the right to freedom of religion or belief for all and in all its dimensions. Other measures recommended in the Rabat Plan of Action include voluntary ethical guidelines for media reporting connected with self-regulatory supervision, support for community media, facilitation of a non-discriminatory participation of minorities also within mainstream media, interreligious and intra-religious dialogue initiatives, public awareness-raising campaigns and educational efforts in schools. In any such activities, the gender dimension warrants special attention, as women frequently suffer from complex and intersectional stigmatization which renders them particularly vulnerable to hate propaganda and concomitant manifestations of contempt.

I would like to extend my gratitude to the Governments of Sierra Leone and Jordan for having facilitated country visits in 2013, both of which produced valuable insights pertinent to the theme under discussion here. The results of these productive and eye-opening visits can be found in the annexes to my annual report.

Mr. Chair,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for your attention