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The new United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, PhD, is an academic who spent his early years working for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). His career has been entirely dedicated to human rights: after having been a researcher in the field for 30 years, he was appointed head of Germany’s National Human Rights Institute in Berlin from 2003 to 2009 and in June 2010 was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Dr Bielefeldt seems to be realist and a pragmatist–a good sign. He acknowledges that the issue of his mandate has become “political and very controversial”, but he noted that previous Special Rapporteurs had stood up to their critics and defended their mandate. He promised to be as strong as his predecessors. Dr Bielefeldt seeks information and advice from NGOs. Based on how freely he spoke with delegations during this very open meeting at Palais Wilson, his commitment is an encouragement for future collaboration.  

During the meeting, attended by several NGOs, we were invited to introduce ourselves to the audience and to the Special Rapporteur. I introduced the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), saying, “We defend not only persecuted religious minorities but also people who do not believe. We have been interrupted a number of times at the UN by countries seeking limits to freedom of expression. Therefore, we would like to know where the Special Rapporteur stands on this issue and his views on how the United Nations could better address freedom of religion and freedom of expression.” My introduction seems to have made quite an impression, as the problem of interruption of NGOs during meetings came back repeatedly during the discussion, with the Special Rapporteur constantly referring to my introducing remarks and looking back at me.

The Special Rapporteur began his presentation by referring to his planned travels. He will first visit Paraguay, then a Western European country and an Islamic country with serious human rights problems, the latter two having not been chosen yet. Other countries will be visited, this is only the beginning.  Globally, the Special Rapporteur is interested in addressing:

a) minorities in religious countries (Ahmadis, Bahais, but also atheists)
b) freedom of religion in schools, with prevention of indoctrination or promotion of “typical negative stereotypes” on religion
c) religion at work .

Addressing the question of pressure by States against NGOs and against the Special Rapporteur himself, Dr Bielefeldt responded that his record showed that he had always chosen principles instead of interests. He added that his final report would be seen as an encouragement for NGOs to address the issue of freedom of religion or belief during sessions of the Council.

IHEU was the only NGO to express concerns towards people who do not believe. Again, every time the Rapporteur spoke of atheists, he turned toward me. His presentation was excellent. Questioned several times by an Islamic NGO and an Ahmadi association, he repeated that he was not interested in knowing whether the Qur’an allows dissents in Islam or not. “My mandate”, he said, “is not to debate the truth of a book, but to defend the core values of human dignity that are freedom of expression and freedom of religion”. His work, he said, was not about theological means but rather of equality and freedom. A perfect match with where IHEU stands.

At the end of the meeting, I spoke to Dr Bielefeldt and his staff and promised to send him our 2009 policy report “Speaking Freely About Religion”.

–Xavier Cornut

IHEU Representative, UN Geneva
Geneva, September 24, 2010

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