In May 2019, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution establishing The International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, to be observed on 22 August each year. The Coalition for Genocide Response hosted a webinar to mark the third anniversary of this event this year. It was chaired by Fiona Bruce MP, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Dr Ewelina Ochab, co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response and author of the initiative to establish the UN day.
This event provided expert testimony from FoRB leaders in the UK, Netherlands and the USA, and included survivor testimony from Helen Berhane who was imprisoned because of her faith in Eritrea. During the meeting speakers highlighted the growing global support for protecting FoRB, emphasised what has been achieved so far and reviewed the challenges faced in the future. While there has been a growing coalition for promoting the right to believe there has also been increase in the number of FoRB violations in recent years. This meeting focused on the importance of building alliances in the international community, upcoming developments and a call for action. As Dr Ewelina Ochab said, opening the meeting, that today is “not just as an act of remembrance for victims of violence but a springboard for action.”
Dr Ewelina Ochab
Opening the meeting Dr Ochab gave a history of the day commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief. This day was established not only as a remembrance but to help the international community to act in an environment of ever-increasing FoRB violations. There was a focus on the escalating situation in Afghanistan and the impact that the Taliban government may have on the Hazara community and other religious minorities. Additionally, Dr Ochab highlighted the situation in Nigeria with sexual violence and rape being used as a weapon against women from religious minorities. Challenging the international community to treat these situations as emergencies she called for governments to provide immediate support rather than implementing policies over the next four or five years. Concluding she summarised the impact of this meeting was to focus on how to help individuals and communities after violence, share ideas on prevention and to hear survivors’ stories.
Fiona Bruce MP
Fiona Bruce, Prime Ministers’ Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, highlighted recent developments in FoRB with the establishment of UK FoRB Forum, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and the impact of the Truro Review. These recent changes are helping equip the FCDO to respond to the “growing phenomenon” of religious persecution. However, her main message was that there is still much to do and that governments, NGOs and religious organisations all have a part to play challenging violence and FoRB violations wherever it occurs. Mrs Bruce highlighted the importance of working together with other members of the international community and the growing international coalition to tackle FoRB abuses.
Despite a growing international voice challenging FoRB abuses Fiona Bruce challenged the community by stating that words needed to be backed up with actions. To this effect she highlighted the UK role in hosting an international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in the summer of 2022. This conference will bring policy makers, activists, NGO and survivors together to champion freedom of religion or belief globally. Mrs Bruce concluded by highlighting a new initiative launched by this APPG pairing prisoners of conscience with parliamentarians to advocate directly for them.
Archbishop Angaelos’ address highlighted how respecting freedom of religion or belief is about respecting fundamental humanity, about the dignity of every human being, and how we need to work together to make a difference. The Archbishop underlined that FoRB violations are not sudden but “a very slow and meticulous process of alienation, marginalisation and persecution”. Left unchecked and unchallenged by the international community this can lead to genocide and ethnic cleansing. As such, the international community cannot turn a blind eye to laws being broken or put political interests before humanitarian considerations. Archbishop Angaelos concluded by praising the impact of the Truro Review, stating that it has been “pivotal in the landscape of freedom of belief”, and the establishment of the International Alliance for Freedom of Belief.
Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC
Baroness Kennedy opened her address by looking at the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18; that freedom of belief is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. She went on to highlight the increase in FoRB abuses in recent years and the disproportionate impact this had had on women. Baroness Kennedy highlighted the atrocities committed against the Yazidi community by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the attacks against Rohingya in Myanmar and China’s oppression of Uyghur Muslims and that often rape and sexual violence is used as a deliberate weapon targeting women from religious minorities. She highlighted efforts in the UN to create a permanent investigatory mechanism with the UN for FoRB violations. This is needed as there is a “failure to truly understand the depth of the crimes against women in this context of denying religious freedom”. This effort would create a cohort of investigators and lawyers who can specifically investigate FoRB violations against women and provide specialist support to victims.
Jos Douma, chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, highlighted the work of the governments of the Netherlands, UK and US in promoting religious freedom and supporting victims of FoRB violations. Highlighting specific projects which focused on providing psychological and emotional support Jos Douma emphasised that “we should never forget that behind the figures in the reports are hundreds of millions of individuals”. He highlighted the impact that Covid 19 had on religious minorities with many communities being blamed for the spread of the pandemic or denied access to healthcare. He also highlighted the impact of laws that seem non-discriminatory but have a disproportionate effect on religious minorities.
Concluding, Mr Douma highlighted recent reports: from Open Doors, on the impact of gender and FoRB, and Humanists International. Emphasising the need to work in alliance and the role that national human rights institutions, non-governmental organisations, religious bodies, the media and civil society have to play in promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity.
Nadine Maenza, Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, highlighted the increasing risk of atrocities from FoRB violations and how these undermine democracies around the world. Nadine also highlighted the importance to build coalitions to strengthen freedom of religion or belief globally and to hold perpetrators to account by bringing people to justice. Mentioning the situations in Nigeria, China, Turkey and Myanmar, Nadine challenged the international community to do more. Speaking specifically about Turkey she mentioned countries have remained silent because of “complexities of their relationship with Turkey, meaning this violence will likely continue”. Concluding she summarised that ignoring such crimes should not be acceptable on the international stage and that FoRB violations not only violates international law and undermines legal norms but threatens international security, global democracies and strengthens authoritarian regimes.
Adam Phillips, director of the Local faith and transformative partnership at USAID highlighted the bi-partisan support in the USA to protect freedom of belief around the world. Often FoRB and other issues collide having a double effect on members of religious minorities. Adam specifically mentioned the impact of the climate emergency, Covid 19 and the economic downturn over the last 18 months have all coincided to exacerbate FoRB abuses in many countries around the world. Giving the examples of Tigray in Ethiopia and an escalation of violence in Northern Nigeria FoRB abuses not only harm religious minorities but also cause damage to democracies and strengthen authoritarianism regimes.
The most powerful address of the meeting came from Helen Berhane, a survivor of FoRB violence in Eritrea. Helen spent more than two years imprisoned for her faith facing targeted violence from prison guards and being locked in a shipping container during the heat of the day. Explaining that the Eritrean government only recognised four religious groups Orthodox Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran and Islam, members of other religious communities face arbitrary arrest and violence at the hands of the government. Though Helen is now free and no longer in Eritrea she reminded the meeting that there are many more like her still imprisoned and facing violence in Eritrea because of their faith. Her testimony highlighted the very real reason why protecting FoRB is a priority and the important role governments, NGOs and faith-based organisations have in protecting this fundamental right.