Remarks of the High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations
Freedom for Religion or Belief: Promoting peaceful coexistence through Human Rights
8 November 2016
, 9:30 – 13:00
Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation
Sala Aldo Moro, Piazzale della Farnesina 1, Rome
Ladies and Gentleman,
I am very pleased to be here to address this important theme : “Freedom for Religion or Belief: Promoting peaceful coexistence through Human Rights”.
First, I would like to express my deepest condolences to the government of Italy and the families of the victims of the recent earthquake that struck this country and left thousands of people displaced. It is in such moments that we must show solidarity with those who are suffering.
Throughout history, religion and belief have been powerful unifying forces, bringing people of different languages and cultures together to share values and traditions. However, beliefs and religion have also been source of divisions, resulting in religious conflicts and sectarian violence often targeted at religious minorities.
Modern armed conflict has included horrible examples of people being forced to leave their homes for fear of being targeted simply because of their religion. People have felt compelled to leave their homes and flee their countries, in particular where violent conflict has assumed a religious or sectarian dimension. Not only do they have to face the challenges related to these situations, as well as the loss of their loved ones and possessions, but they also have to cope with an increasingly polarized host societies where they may face further religious intolerance and discrimination.
Let me state very clearly as it is enshrined in article 3 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief that: “Discrimination between human beings on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations
The United Nations General Assembly adopted last year on December 2015, without a vote, two resolutions that stressed the advancement of a culture of peace and non-violence based on education, tolerance, dialogue and cooperation. The first resolution, titled “Promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation for peace” condemns any advocacy of religious hatred which induced discrimination, hostility and violence, and stress the importance of mutual understanding and interreligious and intercultural dialogue as important dimensions of the dialogue among civilizations and of the culture of peace.
Entire communities have suffered and are suffering discrimination or outright persecution. It is the obligation of States to protect their people and to provide them with the opportunity to enjoy the free exercise of their human rights, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.
It is also the responsibility of the International Community to promote and ensure compliance with the international law and legal instruments, including those that guarantee freedom of religion or belief.
Yet we also know that ensuring that laws and policies concerned with freedom of religion or belief align fully with international human rights standards is not an easy task. The international community has repeatedly recognized the voluntary exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief by enshrining it in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights : “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom , either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching , practice, worship and observance”.
At the United Nations, efforts continue to be made towards protecting the freedom of religion or belief. Each year, two resolutions are presented to the General Assembly and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), and adopted by consensus. United Nations Human Rights Council resolution 6/37 also mandated a “Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief” to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.
The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations is also committed to promoting freedom of religion or belief at the international and national level. The Alliance looks at religious freedom through a lens of tolerance and diversity. In keeping with the human rights-based approach in general, freedom of religion or belief furthermore requires non-discriminatory implementation, which implies positive efforts towards overcoming all forms of discrimination. UNAOC is an active member of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, and believes that broad interreligious and intra religious diversity is a stimulant necessary for profound theological or philosophical reflection and a precondition for productive exchanges.
It is in this spirit that I convened, in conjunction with the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly, a High-level Thematic Debate at the General Assembly In April 2015. At that event we met with religious leaders from all faiths.. Regardless of their all of the religious leaders who participated agreed that dialogues among people of different religions and cultures are the key to lasting peace. All reaffirmed the right to freedom of religion and all reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
One year later, this sentiment was echoed at our 7th Global Annual Forum held in Baku on April 2016. The panel discussion dedicated to the role of religious leaders in preventing violent extremism outlined their important role in diminishing discrimination, marginalization, and opposition that feed violent sentiment. The outcome of the discussion was that religious leaders should encourage freedom of religion and belief, and that they should promote all religions as equal.
In May 2016, the Alliance and Religions for Peace co-organized a High-level International Consultation under the theme: “Partnering with Religious Leaders of the Middle East in Advancing the Protection of Minorities in Muslim Majority States”, where Religious Leaders from the Middle East addressed Violent Religious Extremism by Advancing Full Citizenship for all Communities on the Basis of the Marrakesh Declaration Prior to the G7 Summit in Japan.
Today, voices promoting tolerance, moderation, interfaith and inter-cultural understanding and respect, seem to get increasingly drowned out, undermining the full enjoyment of basic rights. Too often, extreme expressions of religious hatred fan the flames of incitement to violence, which feed into the politicization of religious ideology, extremism, and even genocide. We hear increasing use of religion in rhetoric on national identity by political leaders. Many Governments promote certain religions in order to define and demark their national or cultural identity. Many States demarcate their national identity by drawing sharp distinctions between “national” religions worthy of support and “foreign” religions deemed dangerous or destructive to national cohesion and social inclusion. Such thoughts run counter to our collective respect for pluralism and diversity. Minorities, including religious minorities, add to any country’s mosaic and its richness.
It is appalling to see that in the current refugee crisis, many States fail to honor the responsibility they have in accommodating refugees, including those who are fleeing massive violations of their freedom of religion or belief. Some Governments have opened their borders and demonstrated solidarity, while other States have indicated that they would be merely willing to accommodate refugees from certain religious backgrounds close to their predominant religious traditions.
It is to be noted that extremist and terrorist groups draw public support and legitimacy from politicized religious rhetoric to wipe out any traces of religious diversity. While stigmatizing members of religious minorities as “unbelievers” or “heretics”, they often attack people of the same religion to which they themselves belong, thereby creating a climate of fear in which no one can enjoy their freedom of religion or belief.
Last year, during the High Level Week of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Pope Francis urged more than 150 world leaders to protect religious minorities – and in many cases, members of the religious majority in the Middle East and Africa, with an allusion to the threat from groups such as ISIS.
Politicians worldwide must join their efforts towards promoting religious diversity as well as freedom of religion or belief. Religious tolerance is crucial in contributing to respect for other human rights and strengthening good governance, the rule of law, and peace and security. This is the only way to build inclusive societies and achieve peace. It also serves the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development particularly goal 16 that aims at building peaceful, just and inclusive societies.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to draw your attention on the crucial role that must be given to youth here. It is essential to provide young people with the adequate tools and instruments to understand freedom of religion or belief and promote it worldwide. In this context, I call upon the international community to develop and expand activities that can educate young people about religious diversity and contribute to building resilience against religious intolerance.
A country’s wealth lay in its youth, who should be at the heart of all peace processes. Let’s strengthen our commitment to young people who can build bridges and promote peace.
Before concluding I would like to commend IDLO for launching the report of Freedom of Releigon or Belief and the Law.