UN Side Event: World-wide Human Rights, Religious Liberty and Religious Minorities
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June 10, 2014 – United Nations  
[Thanks to Nancy Lyon in Geneva]

A United Nations side event, World-wide Human Rights, Religious Liberty and Religious Minorities, was held in Geneva on 10 June 2014. The event was sponsored by the Permanent Delegation of the Council of Europe, Permanent Mission of Uruguay, Spain, and Canada and the International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty. The event presented and discussed perspectives on protecting freedom of religion and the rights of religious minorities, highlighting the importance that all actors work closely together to promote world peace.   

The International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty proposed a holistic framework to protect religious liberty and religious minorities’ rights by establishing a structure of different actors and stakeholders representing institutional and multidisciplinary actors and organizations.

The special edition of AIDLR's "Conscience and Liberty" entitled "Worldwide Human Rights and Religious Liberty. A New Equilibrium or New Challenges Volume I" was launched with some of the authors presenting their contributions. The book contains articles, statements and reflection of four UN Secretaries-General, UN High Commissioners of Human Rights, ambassadors, scholars, religious leaders as well as testimonies or letters of former presidents of the Honorary  Committee of AIDLR including Eleanor Roosevelt, Rene Cassin, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and Mary Robinson.

I. Panel Discussion - "Conscience and Liberty" on "Worldwide Human Rights and Religious Liberty: A New Equilibrium or New Challenges" - new book

Moderator: Attorney Liviu Olteaunu, Secretary General of the AIDLR, Permanent Representative at the UN, EP, OCE and Representative at the COE, the author of "Dialog Five" that convened in Madrid.

Panelists included Dr. Bruno Vertaillier, President of the International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty (AIDLR); H.E. Mr. Petre Roman, Member of Romanian Parliament, former Prime Minister of Romania, former Ministry of Foreign Affairs, former President of Romanian Senate, and Member of the Club de Madrid, H. E. Mr. Petru Dumitriu, Ambassador, Permanent Observer of the Council of Europe to the United Nations in Geneva and Professor Jose-Miguel Serrano Ruiz Calderon, Researcher at Human Rights Institute and professor at the Law School Universidad Complutense of Madrid, Spain.

Panelist H.E. Mrs. Laura Dupuy Lassere, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations in Geneva, and former President of the Human Rights Council authored an article in the recently released book that focused on the work of the Human Rights Council. She told the attendees that every society is multi-cultural. Uruguay very much appreciates the basic freedoms including freedom of religion and belief that have become an important foundation for rights in her country. She asserted that "As the Human Rights Council at the encouragement of the High Commissioner for Human Rights…we were glad to refocus our efforts on basic rights with an eye to the Rabat Plan of Action." She also affirmed that it is “important for an individual to make personal decisions about changing one's faith.” 

Judge Dr. Mr. Harald Mueller, Hanover, Germany, discussed the article he wrote for "Conscience and Liberty" that featured the "Edict of Tolerance" (Edict of Milan) describing the severe persecution of Christians under Diocletian (303). The Edict of Galerius (311) allowed Christians to rebuild their churches and to meet together on the understanding that they did not disturb public law. Later, Constantine met with Licinius in 313 and signed the Edict of Milan "...that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred..."

Two generations later under Theodosius I (380) Christianity was proclaimed to be the state religion. All other religions were banned. The Christians became the persecutors.  Judge Mueller asserted: "The mistake inherent in the Edict of Milan did not lie in its statement of which the wording clearly advocated the coexistence of different religions, but rather in a view of the state that granted its sovereign enormous influence over religious matters."

II. Panel Discussion: "Religious Liberty & Religious Minorities - Developing a Holistic Framework"

 Moderator:  H.E. Mr. Petru Dumitriu, Ambassador, Permanent Observer of the Council of Europe to the United Nations

The panel examined practical measures and strategies to reinforce the capacity of five categories of major stakeholders to establish a coordinated multidisciplinary interaction in order to foster understanding between civilizations, cultures and religions.  "Dialog Five," a concept launched by AIDLR based on the idea that governments, diplomats, religious leaders, academia and non-governmental organizations can effectively work together at international, regional and national levels to promote tolerance and respect for "other" differences, diversity, religion or belief and always defending the human dignity and the principle of freedom of religion for all people.

Panelists: 

Ms. Rita Izsak, Special Rapporteur of UN on Minority Issues

Ms. Izsak looked at the first UPR cycle and found 445 recommendations on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and more than 900 recommendations on minorities. In her work as special rapporteur, she tries to promote the value and benefit of being a minority, highlighting the rights that come from Minority Rights Protection. Based on her experience in the past three years, more than half of the violations that she has addressed with member states have involved religious minorities. Many actors and factors come into play. Examples of the problems she is seeing include limits on and denial of religious liberty, bans or limits on religious liberty, closure of places of worship or destruction of religious property,threats against religious leaders and members of specific religions, forced labor, executions and exclusion from citizenship. She recommends the following points as steps to address the problems facings religious minorities:

  1. Protection 
  2. Protection and promotion of identity
  3. Non-discriminations
  4. Participation in the society

Many governments are afraid of collecting and measuring data. Ms. Izsak asserts that it is always better to have data. She believes it is really about political will. A state must have a minister or high level official focusing on religious minorities. Everyone should have the right to learn about other religions. Minorities should have the right to participate in the social, cultural, and economic life of their country. The Rabat Plan of action is an important tool to help combat hate speech.

 H.E. Mr. Ricardo Garcia-Garcia, Deputy Director General - Ministry of Justice of Spain, Expert on the relation with the religious minorities, Madrid, Spain

 "We cannot forget that a minority religion in one country may be a majority religion in another country," Mr. Garcia noted. Dialog Five refers to governments, diplomats including permanent representatives, religious leaders, scholars and NGOs.  The Spanish model was set up as a template for religious liberty. We have created text books for Islamic students, Jehovah Witnesses students that can be used in Spanish public schools.

Professor Ganoune Diop, Representative of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) to the UN in New York and Geneva, Adviser Interfaith Relations, Washington, DC

Dignity remains the best foundation for relating to people, treating them with honor. "Dignity ... is a feature of human personhood. We postulate that an invaluable tool may have been under the radar of the international community of human rights. The significance of the religious factor may have been underestimated and therefore understudied.  At their core, as evident from the various scriptures, world religions and secular world philosophies have both upheld human dignity to the extent that the notion of 'overlapping normative consensus,' is now a given," noted Professor Diop. He suggested that "We need a culture of human dignity. Root cause of suffering is despising the infinite worth and dignity of every person. There is a need to develop a culture not only of human rights but of individual dignity.  Success in this area could reverse several dysfunctions."

Dialogue of Five is a must to moving forward. He suggested that "collaborative leadership is not just about effective teamwork. It is about crossing boundaries to accomplish goals, solve problems, and realize dreams beyond the capacity of any individual."

 Dr. Harry Kuhalampi, former Adviser MEDP-European Parliament, the Commission of FoRB, Brussels

 The meeting in Madrid was a watershed moment that started a new dialogue on freedom of religion or belief. The working group at the European Parliament has been very active. An important step resulted in the publication of guidelines on religious freedom by the European Union. But, it must move beyond discussion and be put into practice. There are many reasons why minority religions experience challenges. Most problems are rooted in societal attitudes and disrespect for differences. Tolerance is a positive acceptance of differences.

  1. Religious Education - help people understand what "religion" is all about
  2. Media plays a crucial role in shaping attitudes and public debate

Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief (video message)

Tendency of fragmentations is of great concern. We need collaboration on so many levels. He has collaborated with Rita Izsak on minority religious issues. It is important that the Council of Europe and European Union have working groups focusing on religious freedom.

 Said Professor Bielefeldt, "We have human rights obligations at different levels: national, regional and international, and religious beliefs and human rights develop in different directions and can mutually undermine each other. We have the UN approach, EU approach, COE approach, various national approaches...and as a matter of fact, these different institutions sometimes are worlds of their own...."