Building a Global Alliance for Religious Freedom

Rising religious freedom abuses represent a challenge beyond the capabilities of any one government or organisation. But recent collective action efforts give cause for hope, writes Knox Thames in an opinion piece on the Tony Blair Faith Foundation website.

On June 15, the international community joined together to launch a new effort to combat rising religious persecution. Led by the government of Canada, a group of like-minded countries from different regions met in Brussels and agreed to participate in the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief. This ground breaking effort by foreign ministries joins other efforts to build international coalitions to promote religious freedom for all.

The world is an increasingly hostile place for religious freedom. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that almost 75% of the global population lives in countries where the free practice of faith is restricted or highly restricted by government and/or societal actors. In addition, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found in our 2015 Annual Report that billions of people live in countries that perpetrate or tolerate systematic, ongoing or egregious violations of religious freedom. These meta-statistics cover the horrific abuses faced by individuals belonging to religious minorities from religious freedom violators ranging from ISIS to the Burmese government. The world is witnessing a crisis for faith.

And the opponents to freedom of thought, conscience and religion are networking. Radical Buddhist monks from Myanmar have made common cause with their coreligionists in Sri Lanka. Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are expanding their reach globally and expanding their narratives of grievance around the world. Authoritarian regimes share “best practices” in repression and defend each other before the United Nations and other international venues.Not everyone is standing still while the world burns.
However, not everyone is standing still while the world burns. Efforts are underway to create greater connectivity among like-minded nations who wish to protect the ability of individuals to peacefully seek truth as they wish, to change faith or hold no faith, and to express their religious beliefs alone or in community with others.

The International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief is one such effort, grounded in international standards, such as Article 18 from the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, which stipulates the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Seeing a diverse number of nations from around the world agree to participate in this network was certainly encouraging. Hopefully the verbal commitments will be followed up with concrete and collective action.

In addition, there is a parallel effort underway to connect parliamentarians who support freedom of religion or belief. The International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPP) was launched in Norway in November 2014 at the Nobel Peace Center. The event ended with the signing of the Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief by over 30 parliamentarians from across the globe, which committed them to advance religious freedom for all. Efforts are underway to have a second meeting in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly and to expand the parliamentary network. In its short life, the IPP has been active – sending letters of intervention to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the President of Myanmar, and the North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations.

The European Union and the European Parliament have also both increased their ability to advance religious freedom. The EU issued a good set of policy guidelines in 2013 to help instruct EU missions and member states about how to engage on religious freedom in countries of concern. (Hopefully freedom of religion and belief will be highlighted in the upcoming EU human rights action plan and the Guidelines further strengthened when reviewed next year.) In addition, Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, listed religious freedom as among her three priorities when speaking before the European Parliament in late 2014. The Parliament itself has become better equipped. After the last election, the previous Working Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief was upgraded to become the Inter-Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance. It recently released its annual report at a joint event with USCIRF in Brussels, further demonstrating the strong transatlantic commitment to promoting religious freedom.

At this time of rising violations of religious freedom, these efforts are cause for hope. Today’s challenges stretch beyond the capabilities of any one government or organisation. Collective action and sharing of resources and influence can hopefully begin to bring about positive change.

Knox Thames is Director of Policy and Research at the US Commission for International Religious Freedom.