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Building tolerant, inclusive and resilient societies: preventing intolerance, stigmatisation, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief

The Hague 18-19 November 2019

Excellencies,

On behalf of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, thank you for this seventh meeting of the Istanbul process. 

Our warmest thanks to the Government of the Netherlands for hosting us, to the Universal Rights Group for enabling us to come together and to all of you for making this matter – without your prioritization of this and commitment to it - no benefit can be gained, no progress secured.

Friends,

Time and time again – even in recent months – places of worship have been made the target of cruel attack. From Colombo to Christchurch to Cairo to Charlottesville attacks on worshippers, in their places of worship, urge us on to firmer, more united, global effort to tackle more comprehensively, more effectively, more inclusively, violence on the basis of religion or belief. 

Discrimination, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism - the derogatory stereotyping of individuals and communities: they target “some”, but they assault us all - undermining the dignity and integrity of our human family as a whole.  The vicious circle that is political populism’s enabling of religious fanaticism and religious fanaticism’s feeding of political populism is damaging the standing of millions and exacting such suffering on its victims as to revive and reproduce the worst memories of political history.

But cruel, loud and visible impacts of acts of terror against the “other” are not the sum of it.  Intimate, hidden, even expected, acts of abuse - also within religious communities - flourish still, hidden under the privileges of hierarchies, eroding human dignity specifically for those who are without the power or position to protect themselves from coercive intrusions.  

Let us be clear.  Any belief or faith that obliges or trivializes or accepts violations of the physical, sexual and mental integrity of any member of its own community, or any member of another, is not a system of belief worthy of the name - it is a method of oppression.

Excellencies, friends,

The process launched in Istanbul eight years ago, manifests the best of the UN Human Rights Council’s capacity for creativity and cross-regional collaboration. It is the first dedicated, inter-governmental, follow-up mechanism to a Human Rights Council resolution and is designed to bring Geneva discussions to the world’s different regions. Yet the full potential of the Istanbul process remains untapped. Its regularity and its timeliness have been interrupted over more than three years, while the outcomes of previous meetings have varied widely.

However, as flagged by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed while implementation has been slow, the consensus present at its adoption is a resource still – available to be nurtured.

Which is why this this seventh meeting matters so much.  Can we make of it a turning point?  That is in our hands.  When the Organization of Islamic Cooperation hosted the fifth meeting in Jeddah in 2015, then High Commissioner Zeid urged just that – to focus on implementation not debate; on what works, not on what we know doesn’t; on inclusive exchange with civil society and to put in place a solid roadmap to give momentum to next steps and then empower the past, present and future chairs – the troika - to take it forward.

The current High Commissioner Bachelet, the UN’s human rights mechanisms and independent experts such as those here – Special Rapporteur Shaheed and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye - along with treaty bodies and the UN Human Rights Office are keen to assist.  And we have been active too.

The Rabat Plan of Action on incitement speech, for example, the result of regional workshops we convened to discuss legislation, case law and public policies on incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility, has since been used in several countries. Providing a six-point threshold test to identify the demarcation line between free speech and hate speech prohibited under criminal law, the Rabat Action Plan underscores too the collective responsibility of public officials, religious and community leaders and the media to help nurture tolerance, mutual respect, and intercultural dialogue.

Our “Faith for Rights” initiative launched in 2017, addresses in its Beirut declaration the human rights roles, responsibilities and commitments too of faith actors.  My colleague Ibrahim Salama will set this out later in the conference. And with the benefit too of the Special Rapporteurs’ leadership and inputs from my other UN colleagues on the SG’s Strategy and Action Plan on Hate Speech, thanks to your exchanges we can generate the direction, fuel and acceleration too that the Istanbul process needs.

Excellencies,

What is clear is that faith and belief are inextricable to us as human beings. Evidence of this is found in each of our diverse places, in all our various traditions, at every moment in our long, albeit often troubled, human history.  That longing for inner meaning and for outwards significance which faith and belief manifest, places in our hands - and on our hearts - not just a precious gift but such a grave responsibility.  For faith enables us to feel “called” to purpose, meaning, and contribution.  It narrates for us even our ultimate destinations.  And it is a means by which we can find confidence in our own value, even, or arguably particularly, when we feel we are not valued at all.  The sense of steely purpose that faith provides shepherds millions into a communion of connection and belonging - the likes of which no other system of organized human identity and commonality has ever been able to match – not even the nation state or Manchester United.

Faith straddles too the most intimate and the most public of domains.  It gives narrative to peoples’ hearts and spirits, but also to their minds, their bodies and thus, to their actions too.  And while personal belief need have no boundary, personal actions, which can bring the most communal of consequences, simply cannot be afforded the same luxury. 

“What is the consequence of my belief for your belief?” must be asked, considered and explored respectfully.  But the real deal-breaker question is “What is the consequence of my belief for your physical, material and tangible existence”?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) anticipates that you and I might not share the same faith – so it seeks to protect the believer, not the belief: freedom of speech and worship but integrated with the freedoms too from want and from fear.  Indivisible one from the other – no fundamental freedom can be allowed its exercise in ways that obliterate realization of the others for the other.  My freedom from want and freedom from fear cannot be secured in the absence of your freedom of worship and freedom of speech.  But the corollary is as true: no freedom of worship or belief excuses disproportionate restriction on freedom of speech, nor can be left to foster cruel spread of want or fear – whether by acts large in scale or intimate in detail.

Friends,

We have the Geneva resolution, the Istanbul process, the Rabat Plan of Action, the Beirut Commitments and now - thanks to the Netherlands and to you - we have the chance to do far more than offer only “Hague hopes”.   It really is time we all had more faith in the Istanbul Process.

Ends