Remarks by Ms. Nihal Saad,
Chief of Cabinet and Spokesperson for the High Representative
for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC)
at the SOAR Project Final Policy Dialogue Meeting
14 March 2023, Brussels, Belgium
Dear colleagues and members of the Advisory Board and partners of this consortium,
I warmly welcome you all. It’s really a great pleasure to finally meet in person. The High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, Under-Secretary-General Miguel Moratinos has delegated me to represent UNAOC in this meeting as he has to be in Nouakchott today for bilateral meetings prior to the OIC 49h Council of Foreign Ministers meeting.
The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) is very proud of its support for this project. The 7 national policy dialogues that took place over the past year were very useful and contributed to informing the policy recommendations for state and non-state stakeholders at the EU. I look forward to a more detailed and nuanced discussions around those recommendations.
The engagement of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) in this project emanates from our role as the UN entity which developed the first UN Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites in 2019 and is now leading its implementation.
Pursuant to the mandate received by the Secretary-General in the aftermath of the attacks against mosques that took place in March 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) elaborated the United Nations Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites: In Unity and Solidarity for Safe and Peaceful Worship. Launched by the Secretary-General on 12 September 2019, the Plan of Action is anchored in relevant General Assembly, Security Council and Human Rights Council resolutions, as well as key documents agreed upon by religious leaders.
It provides a framework for action addressed to all relevant stakeholders to better prevent, prepare for and respond to possible attacks against religious sites. Moreover, the Plan encourages collaboration among stakeholders to build trust, information sharing, partnerships and joint action.
While the safety and security of religious sites and worshippers is the primary responsibility of member states, the plan contains a number of specific recommendations to Member States in relation to preparedness and responses that are useful for addressing vulnerabilities and responses to terrorist attacks, including to ensure that religious sites are defined as vulnerable targets and incorporated in relevant national strategies and plans; reviewing or strengthening existing national strategies and plans to make them more effective for safeguarding religious sites; considering the establishment of specialized units to safeguard religious sites; carrying out assessments of the respective roles and responsibilities at all levels of government. The Plan of Action also encourages Member States to develop and sustain collaboration with religious leaders to build trust and help ensure information sharing; connect religious leaders with local enforcement authorities; organize training for congregations on security measures; and develop public-private partnership.
Where we are now?
We made progress in several areas:
1. #Forsafeworhsip campaign: Throughout 2022, UNAOC continued to promote the global call to action #forSafeWorship on its social media channels and dedicated website, www.forsafeworship.org. The hashtag generated 1.4 million in social media reach last year, and the campaign website continues to feature videos about places of worship in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Italy, Iraq, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, Spain, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
By sharing these stories, the campaign highlights the universality of places of worship and the unique cultural and historical significance of religious sites across the globe, seeking to inspire greater respect and appreciation for these sites, and to encourage communities to work together to protect places of worship and their worshippers from harm.
2. Mapping: One of the main recommendations of the Plan is the development of a mapping of religious sites around the world that will produce an online interactive tool to capture the universality of religious sites and contribute to fostering respect. In view of the magnitude of this endeavor, we have taken a phased-approach starting in 2 pilot countries We have completed the mapping exercise in Argentina and Sweden as pilot countries.
3. In accordance with the multi-stakeholder approach of the UN Plan of Action, UNAOC continues to work with all relevant stakeholders in the implementation of the Plan.
In this context, United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism continues to be a key partner including through the UN Global Programme on Countering Terrorist Threats against Vulnerable Targets. I am very happy to see here my colleague Ignacio Ibanez, Director of the UNOCT office in Madrid.
In September, under this program, the module “Protection of Religious Targets Against Terrorist Threats” was launched in partnership with United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and UN Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate.
Following an overview of key terrorism-related threats and vulnerabilities affecting religious sites, this module explores the specific role that individual stakeholders can and should play in a complex – and often volatile – security environment by acting within the conceptual framework of a risk and crisis management approach. It contains a selection of case studies illustrating how key security-related principles – including internationally endorsed recommendations – have been operationalized by Governments, private-sector actors, operators of religious sites and civil society organizations.
The module also summarizes the content of several tools (manuals, handbooks, compendiums), providing guidance for the establishment of sound policy and operational settings to reduce religious sites’ vulnerabilities and increase their resilience.
Institutionally , we have seen a growing interest from member states in the subject of protection of religious sites and places of worship. That was demonstrated in UN General Assembly Resolutions such as:
In its seventh review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in 2021, the General Assembly called upon Member States to “strengthen efforts to improve the security and protection of particularly vulnerable targets, including religious sites … as well as to enhance their resilience to terrorist attacks, in particular in the area of civil protection”.
In 2021, the General Assembly unanimously adopted resolution 75/258 on “Promoting a culture of peace and tolerance to safeguard religious sites”. The General Assembly strongly deplores attacks against religious sites and condemns all acts or threats of violence, destruction, damage or endangerment directed against religious sites; invites relevant stakeholders to support, as appropriate, the United Nations Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites; and invites the Secretary-General to convene a global conference involving all relevant stakeholders to spearhead political support for specific actions to take the Plan of Action forward.
Dear colleagues and partners,
Religious sites and places of worship are places where individuals or groups gather to pray, find comfort and compassion. It is also a place to participate in ceremonies or perform acts of devotion and meditation.
When terrorists and violent extremists target religious sites, they aim to strike at the very core of communities’ sense of identity and belonging. Perpetrators of attacks conducted during religious holidays or celebrations also seek to have a stronger symbolic and human impact due to the higher number of congregants – and thus potential victims – being present.
A distinctive fragility of many religious sites is inherent in the mission for which they have been conceived. Religious sites and religious communities are vulnerable to terrorist attacks as they adopt the “open door” policy , welcoming strangers and not asking questions about the identity or provenance of unknown visitors.
Questioning the safety of worshippers and the security of a place of worship is detrimental to the image that a religious community wants to project of itself. Those who manage and run religious facilities generally operate from a very different emotional and mental perspective than law enforcement professionals.
Information about services and ceremonies is often public, vulnerabilities are accentuated by the possibility of knowing in advance when congregants will gather and have a different base of experience. This will make security a “hard sell” for many of these individuals, who will either fail to understand the necessity of such measures or be frightened by the idea that they are necessary.
Religious Sites under International law
Religious sites under international humanitarian law Under the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the term “cultural property” covers, irrespective of origin or ownership, “movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people … whether religious or secular”. The Convention is complemented by two Protocols adopted in 1954 and 1999.
The 1999 Protocol contains detailed provisions on criminal responsibility and jurisdiction (chapter 4). The 1977 Additional Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions contain obligations specifically concerning the protection of cultural objects and places of worship in times of armed conflict. Furthermore, making clearly recognized places of worship the object of attack could constitute a grave breach pursuant to Article 85 (4) (d) of 1977 Additional Protocol I. Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, provided they are not military objectives, constitutes a war crime in international and non-international armed conflicts under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
I wish to thank the European Union for funding this project.