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UN rights expert highlights hidden breaches of freedom of religion in new report

NEW YORK (28 October 2016) – Many people are suffering violations of freedom of religion or belief in ways going unnoticed by the international community, United Nations human rights expert Heiner Bielefeldt has told the UN General Assembly.

Mr. Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said that much of the world’s focus was on the use of criminal law in areas such as blasphemy, apostasy and proselytism.

But he told the General Assembly many other means were being used to harass individuals and communities, in what he described as an “increasingly challenging environment for security and freedoms.”

For example, he said, some people suffered the imposition of burdensome bureaucracy and administrative requirements. Others were faced with discriminatory structures in family laws and education, or found that States were creating inequality and stigmatization in other ways.

Mr. Bielefeldt presented a report* to the UN General Assembly setting out the scale of the problem and the root causes. 

In some cases, he concluded, the violations were triggered by intolerant interpretations of religions or beliefs. In others, religion was being used to demarking national identity.  Other causes included the exercise of political control, the incompetence of failing and failed States, and imbalances in social power.

“Religious intolerance does not directly originate from religions themselves,” said Mr. Bielefeldt. “Human beings are the ones ultimately responsible for open-minded or narrow-minded interpretations.”

The Special Rapporteur noted that, in some cases, intolerant interpretations of a religion are even actively supported and encouraged by the Government, indulging hate crimes or other violence committed in the name of religion.

“Often, authoritarian Governments are obsessed with controlling all types of religious activities, on the pretext of promoting harmonious relationships between the political party and the people,” he said. “Questioning this ‘harmony’ is a taboo, as the Governments fear the monopoly of the party itself will be challenged.”

The violations being witnessed around the world, Mr. Bielefeldt said, were being driven by States, non-State actors, or a combination of the two. 

In countries with dysfunctional political and legal systems, the Special Rapporteur said, the vacuum was typically filled by criminal organizations, vigilantes and terrorist groups, resulting in the violation of many human rights including those of freedom of religion or belief.

Mr. Bielefeldt also criticized States which were reluctant to receive refugees, or which were willing to accommodate only those from particular religious backgrounds, warning against dividing territories by religions.

“States and the international community should live up to their obligations and work together to tackle the world’s many challenges, especially the refugee crisis today,” the human rights expert said.

(*) Read the Special Rapporteur’s report: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/A-71-269_en.pdf

Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt assumed his mandate on 1 August 2010. As Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, he is independent from any government, and acts in his individual capacity. Mr. Bielefeldt is Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. From 2003 to 2009, he was Director of Germany’s National Human Rights Institution. The Special Rapporteur’s research interests include various interdisciplinary facets of human rights theory and practice, with a focus on freedom of religion or belief. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomReligion/Pages/FreedomReligionIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Download the “Rapporteur's Digest on Freedom of Religion or Belief”: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/religion/docs/RapporteursDigestFreedomReligionBelief.pdf

Check the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/ReligionOrBelief.aspx

For more information and media requests please Ms. Chian Yew Lim (+41 22 928 9310 / clim@ohchr.org) or write to freedomofreligion@ohchr.org  

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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