January 23, 2014
There is a crisis for freedom of religion and belief around the world. The events of the Arab Awakening have unleashed forces antithetical to the free practice of religion, both for members of majority faiths and for religious minorities. Elsewhere in the world, authoritarian governments continue to use the mechanics of the state to crush independent religious activity. People of all faiths and none are threatened by these trends, which have implications beyond human rights and include threats to international security and the growth of violent religious extremism.
At the same time, a number of European and North American countries have undertaken initiatives to promote religious freedom and oppose limitations to this fundamental right. Starting in 1998, the United States established a special office and ambassador inside the State Department, as well as an independent monitoring commission relating to the issue of freedom of religion. More recently in the United Kingdom, the work of Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’s team and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as the British Parliament’s All Parties Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, have engaged the issue. Additionally, the European Union has issued guidelines on freedom of religion and established a working group on the subject.
Yet, the challenges facing religious freedom are enormous and growing, extending beyond the capabilities or influence of any one government or organization. Coordinated international action is needed to create momentum for positive change. The networking of European and North American efforts could multiply the effectiveness of bilateral engagements and begin to counterbalance the forces of extremism and repression.
In short, this global challenge needs a global response.
Considering the numerous countries and institutions expressly interested in international religious freedom, the worldwide response to terrorism provides a useful model for how to pool resources and share expertise. In 2011, 29 countries and the European Union created the Global Counterterrorism Forum to discuss ways to defeat violent extremism. Since then, a series of high-level ministerial meetings has led to the creation of a special fund to share resources and of programs to counter extremist violence.
Launching a similar project—a Global Religious Freedom Forum—is very attainable. The aforementioned countries, and others with an expressed commitment to upholding the religious freedom protections recognized by Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), could convene a series of high-level meetings every nine to twelve months to coordinate efforts and create synergies in promoting freedom of religion or belief internationally. The meetings would bring together government officials, parliamentarians, and representatives of international organizations. Participants would be encouraged to consult with NGOs and religious communities before and after each meeting to engage all relevant international actors in these efforts.
The purpose of the meetings would be simple and unprecedented: to bring together like-minded policymakers around the issue of freedom of religion or belief for all persons. Discussions would focus on enhancing global cooperation through sharing information about priorities and activities to date, ascertaining current and future challenges, and identifying gaps in international efforts. Ultimately, the effort could lead to a plan of action mobilizing the necessary expertise and creating a joint monetary fund for programming.
Unlike the UN Alliance of Civilizations or recent debates in the UN regarding “defamation of religions,” such a Global Religious Freedom Forum would be framed around support of UDHR Article 18. This would include the freedom to believe or not to believe, the right to worship, change faiths, be free from coercion, and peacefully share one’s religious views with others and one’s children. The meetings would rally international actors currently committed to Article 18 and re-commit participants to actively work to promote and protect the rights it enumerates.
As the challenge posed to freedom of religion or belief cannot be addressed in one single event, subsequent meetings would build momentum to increase capacity for joint action and provide a venue for sharing ideas and formulating responses to new challenges. Future meetings could also discuss ways to encourage more parliamentary and governmental involvement from other states. Religious freedom is relevant in every country and culture and is not a Western concern. “Proselytizing” to bring in other supporters of UDHR Article 18 from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America would add additional international, cultural, and religious diversity to an issue of global concern.
Many countries are responding to increasing religious freedom violations, but greater coordination is needed between governments and international organizations to ensure maximum impact. While human rights violations and religious wars are as old as human history, nation-states have now declared that religious persecution beyond their borders cannot go unnoticed. Forming an international coalition for freedom of religion or belief can push back against the forces of intolerance and help create a future where religious diversity and freedom is respected and protected.
Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The views expressed in this article are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission.