UN Special Rapporteur reports on FoRB violations

The most recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, focuses on the broad range of violations of freedom of religion or belief, their root causes and variables.

The aim of the report is to sensitize readers to the broad range of violations, many of which do not attract adequate, if any, public attention. Governments are obliged to take effective measures to prevent violations of freedom of religion or belief, including abuses committed by non-State actors.

Read the full report


After six years of sending individual communications, conducting country visits and drafting thematic reports, the Special Rapporteur does not think it would be possible to provide a “global map” of existing violations of freedom of religion or belief. The forms, motives and root causes of violations differ widely and cannot be captured adequately by “cartographic” projects, some of which try to depict degrees of violations in analogy to the height of mountains or the depth of the ocean.

The scope of the right to freedom of religion or belief is often underestimated, with negative implications for its conceptualization and implementation. For instance, some Governments narrowly focus on individualistic and private dimensions of freedom of religion or belief while paying inadequate attention to community-related, institutional and infrastructural aspects of religious life. By contrast, other Governments place all the emphasis on recognizing collective religious identities, thus missing the crucial element of personal freedom even though it figures in the title of freedom of religion or belief. Yet other Governments privilege one particular religion or belief — or one particular type of religion — by promoting it as part of the national heritage, thereby ignoring the principles of equality and non-discrimination that are spelled out in some detail in the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief of 1981 (the 1981 Declaration). Moreover, in situations in which abuses are mainly committed by non-State actors, Governments still bear a responsibility for not being willing — or not being fully able — to provide effective protection for individuals and groups whose rights are being violated.

Freedom of religion or belief does not — and indeed cannot — protect religions or belief systems themselves, that is, their various truth claims, teachings, rituals or practices. Instead, it empowers human beings — as individuals, as well as in community with others — who profess religions or beliefs and may wish to shape their lives in conformity with their own convictions. The reason for this focus on “believers rather than beliefs” (as it has been summed up succinctly) is not that human rights reflect a certain “anthropocentric world view”, as some observers have wrongly inferred.

Widely-used abbreviations such as “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” do not fully capture the scope of the human right at issue. Even the term “freedom of religion or belief”, which for ease of reference has generally been employed by the Special Rapporteur and his predecessors, remains a shorthand formulation. Hence, it may be useful from time to time to recall the full title of the right, which is “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”. Legislation and jurisdiction in many States do not adequately reflect the full scope of this human right by often restricting its application to predefined types of religions while excluding non-traditional beliefs and practices. Limiting the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief to members of “recognized” religions is also in violation of the spirit and letter of universal human rights.

The right to freedom of religion or belief covers all aspects of religious and belief-related life: not only the “believing”, but also the “belonging” and the “behaving”, that is, individual and community practices connected with convictions and traditions. Manifestations can take place in private, as well as in public. While individuals have the right to publicly manifest their religious or belief orientation alone or together with others, they also have the right to keep their convictions to themselves. Moreover, no one can be genuinely free to do something unless he or she is also free not to do it, and vice versa. That is why freedom of religion or belief also covers the freedom not to profess a religion or belief, not to attend acts of worship and not to participate in community life.

Many Governments actually refer to broad and unspecified ‘security’, ‘order’ or ‘morality’ interests in order to curb religious criticism, discriminate against minorities, tighten control over independent religious community life or otherwise restrict freedom of religion or belief, often in excessive ways.

Freedom of religion or belief does not only prohibit undue encroachments on the freedom of a person or a group of persons; it also prohibits discrimination — that is, the denial of equality — on the basis of religion or belief.

It is often assumed that violations of freedom of religion or belief mainly originate from religious intolerance, that is, an attitude of narrow-mindedness that does not accommodate any interreligious or intrareligious diversity. While intolerant interpretations of religions or beliefs are in fact one of the most important root causes of numerous violations in this area, one should not ignore the relevance of various societal and political factors, such as interference by control-obsessed authoritarian Governments, the utilization of religions for defining a homogeneous understanding of national identity, loss of trust in public institutions and concomitant processes of societal fragmentation, the prevalence of a “macho culture”, economic and social disparities, widening power gaps between different groups within a society and other variables.

It cannot be emphasized enough that religious intolerance does not directly originate from religions themselves, but always presupposes the intervention of human beings. The basic insight that there can be no understanding of a text without human interpretation also applies to the sources (written or oral) of various religious or belief-related traditions. Although there may be differences between inclinations towards open-mindedness and tolerance in various traditions, there is scope for interpretation in all of them. Thus, human beings themselves are ultimately responsible for open-minded or narrow-minded interpretations, which actually exist side by side in virtually all religious and philosophical traditions.

Throughout the past few years, the Special Rapporteur has sensed an increasing interest in issues concerning his mandate. At the same time, he feels that the broad range of violations of freedom of religion or belief fails to receive attention. For example, administrative harassment and unreasonable bureaucratic stipulations hardly ever make it into the headlines. The scarcity of empirical findings may follow from difficulties in research and reporting, but may also reflect a lack of awareness that certain issues have a human rights dimension in the first place. The latter problem may be the result of an inadequate understanding of the normative range and full scope of freedom of religion or belief, which is a broadly applicable right to freedom to which every human being is entitled.

One issue on which the international community has obviously failed concerns the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons. Violations of freedom of religion or belief are among the manifold reasons for people to leave their home and flee their country, in particular where violent conflict has assumed a religious or sectarian dimension. However, when applying for asylum because of violations of their freedom of religion or belief, refugees have sometimes experienced that their claims are not taken seriously. Some of them have been given bizarre recommendations, such as to avoid public exposure and to keep their faith to themselves. Converts may face suspicion of having fabricated their conversion for the strategic purpose of gaining refugee status. In addition, many violations of freedom of religion or belief are inextricably interwoven with other social or political variables, for example, excessive control interests of authoritarian Governments. Given the complexity of such issues, some observers may dramatically underestimate the gravity of violations experienced by people on the basis of their religion or belief. This may have an impact on the treatment of refugees, whose experiences in this area fail to receive appropriate attention and recognition.

It is depressing to see that in the current refugee crisis, many States fail to honour 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, often in conjunction with admirable commitment shown by civil society organizations and countless volunteers. By contrast, other States have been reluctant to even host a handful of refugees. Yet other Governments have indicated that they would be merely willing to accommodate refugees from religious backgrounds close to their own predominant religious traditions. However, this would amount to a (re)territorialization of religion and thus would clearly be at variance with the freedom of religion or belief, which protects human beings in their diverse convictions and practices instead of fostering religiously homogeneous territories.

The Special Rapporteur can merely appeal to reluctant Governments to reconsider their position and honour their obligations under international law, including by respecting, protecting and fulfilling everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief.