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Britain supports state religions; the Netherlands wants more attention for the rights of atheists; Canada rejects the claim that religions have rights; and China rejects Canada’s claim that Falun Gong practitioners have rights that are being abused: these are just a few of the things I learned at the United Nations hearing on the Annual Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

As part of two days of meetings with Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, I went to hear his report and discussion with the UN General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian & Cultural Committee–the so-called “UN Third Committee”.  The Special Rapporteur–an independent expert appointed by the UN to investigate, advise and report on human rights problems–is the highest UN official devoted solely to defending the human right to freedom of religion or belief.

The Third Committee meeting is open to all of the UN’s nearly 200 member states, and a good many of them were present for the Special Rapporteur’s report. (The meeting is also open to NGO representatives who can actually mingle with and sit among the nation states delegations; at some personal risk, I inserted myself between Germany and Greece.) Since the report is published in advance, states are able to respond with detailed official statements.

The Special Rapporteur ‘s annual report covered the whole range of his work in 2012, including fact-finding visits to countries, correspondence with states over alleged human rights abuses, and also his studies and recommendations on issues relating to the mandate. This year, a major focus of the report was the central, yet extremely controversial, subject of conversion, including the right to change religion and to persuade others to change or leave religion.

The right to leave a religion or change beliefs, and the accompanying right to persuade others of your beliefs and criticize their beliefs, has been one of the most contentious human rights since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first adopted in 1948. States with official religions or ideologies seem to be especially hostile to people choosing to leave their state sponsored belief system.

The Special Rapporteur reported widespread abuse of the right to convert. Many abuses stem from social prejudice, but governments also systematically violate this right. The Special Rapporteur said many governments justify abuses in the interest of promoting national identity or protecting societal homogeneity, or under other pretexts such as maintaining political and national security. 

“In addition to being exposed to manifestations of social pressure, public contempt and systematic discrimination, converts often face insurmountable administrative obstacles when trying to live in conformity with their convictions” the Special Rapporteur said. “In some States, converts may also face criminal prosecution, at times even including the death penalty, for such offences as ‘apostasy,’ ‘heresy,’ ‘blasphemy’ or ‘insult’ in respect of a religion or the country’s dominant tradition and values.”

About a dozen countries responded to the Special Rapporteur’s report. It seemed to me that they mostly focused on those aspects that showed their country in a good light or objected to points that might reflect negatively on their country. No surprise there, then; yet the discussion proved quite illuminating.

Canada’s Permanent Representative to the UN started the discussion with a powerful defense of freedom of conscience as central to all human rights and to the policy goals of Canada. I was very pleased to hear him state that “Canada rejects the basic premise that religions have rights. Human rights belong to human beings.” In announcing plans to create a government office for international religious freedom (like the US), Canada listed many religious adherents suffering grievous  human rights violations, including Falun Gong practitioners.

Many Western countries, including the US, Germany, and the UK were careful to emphasize that freedom of religion or belief includes the right to reject all religions and protects the rights of atheists. The Netherlands ambassador went even further. He concluded his comments by welcoming the Special Rapporteur’s reiteration of the UN understanding that “freedom of religion or belief should be broadly construed so as to protect theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.” The Netherlands then asked, “Could the Special Rapporteur elaborate on the specific needs of individuals with atheistic beliefs or individuals who choose not to adhere to any religion or belief in the area of protection.”

Russia was concerned by the Special Rapporteur’s thematic report on conversion. Perhaps mindful of its own laws restricting proselytism, Russia argued that “missionary activity, as well as any other community outreach, should not offend the religious sensibilities of others. This is respect for various peoples in the world and their beliefs and religions. The beliefs of those who believe in God and those who do not must be protected by secular states.”

Iran was the only country to refer even indirectly to the issue of “defamation of religion” that divided the UN General Assembly for so long. Iran asked the Special Rapporteur for his response to “increased incidence worldwide insulting and attacking religious sanctities, and also if he is going to address this very important question under ‘limitations of freedom of expression’ in his next report.” In his reply, the Special Rapporteur said simply that “the best response to hate speech is more speech.”

China responded to Canada’s mention of Falun Gong, saying, “The Chinese delegation wishes to take this opportunity to remind the Canadian delegation of a common sense issue. I repeat, it is a common sense issue. Falun Gong is not a religion; it is a cult. Regarding the Canadian government’s support to the cult without taking into consideration that reality, China wishes to remind the delegation of that fact. We hope that Canada will focus on resolving the human rights issues in its own country.”

China has a reputation at the UN for focusing much of its energy on attacking its critics. I suspect that Canada was well aware that mentioning Falun Gong might provoke a Chinese response.  And–having read a report, co-authored by a Canadian Member of Parliament, which concluded that there “has been and continues today to be large-scale organ seizures from unwilling Falun Gong practitioners”–I suspect that Canada does not mind the Chinese objection. (And, in case you were hoping the report was about the seizure of church organs, I’m sorry to have to tell you it’s about kidneys, corneas, livers, lungs and hearts.)

China surely gets the award for the most shameful response. But I was not surprised by that. I was a little more taken aback by my own native country, the United Kingdom. After the usual words of welcome for the report, the UK’s first substantive point was to criticize the Special Rapporteur’s “statement that where an official State religion exists that it must inevitably have adverse effects on religious minorities.” Asking him “Surely the important point is equality and non-discrimination before the law rather than whether the country has an official religion or not?”

In his reply, the Special Rapporteur gave a brief and diplomatic response to the UK, agreeing that non-discrimination was “the overarching principle indeed and all the status questions have to be measured against that benchmark.”

At a public question and answer session with the Special Rapporteur later that evening, I asked him:

1.)    If he knew of any country with a state religion that had full equality between all religions and beliefs and no discrimination against minority, or non-state-supported, beliefs.

2.)    If it was possible in principle for a country to have an official state religion and yet in no way favour that religion over other religions or beliefs.

The Special Rapporteur confessed that he knew of no such countries and found it hard to imagine how in principle a state religion could not be treated differently. He added that when a country has a state religion he believes “there is always a prima facie case for the state to answer about discrimination”. Having grown up under a state religion in Britain, I could only agree.

–Matt Cherry

Matt Cherry is an IHEU International Representative and also serves as President of the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the UN.

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