Respect for Freedom of Religion or Belief is necessary for peaceful co-existence and human flourishing

On the 7th and 8th of November parliamentarians from around the globe met in Oslo for the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPP). This group, comprised of various religious and political backgrounds met “ discuss how to jointly combat rising religious persecution and coordinate to protect religious freedom for everyone everywhere.” They then signed a Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief and drafted three letters; one to President Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, one to President Thein Sein of Myanmar and one to the His Holiness Pope Francis. The parliamentarians shared a common view that the human right of freedom of religion or belief (commonly referred to as FoRB) is under serious threat globally. They reaffirmed that the values of FoRB as espoused in Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) are for everyone everywhere. And they committed themselves to doing what they can to respect, protect and fulfill this human right.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief in the British Parliament, the Stefanus Alliance International of Norway and Norwegian Member of Parliament from the Liberal Party, Abid Raja  jointly organized this gathering. It was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Fritt Ord Foundation. While many would agree that convening such a group is a positive step in promoting FoRB, Professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd of Northwestern University is of a different opinion. In a recent blog post she claims that the “International ‘Religious Freedom’ agenda will only embolden ISIS”. Professor Hurd eloborates this further by adding that, “…my first response to the Oslo announcement was whether it would be possible to imagine a more effective ISIS-recruitment tool.”  In addition, she sees this gathering as a top down, patriarchal attempt, led by the US and UK, to, “…lead the way to civilization by instructing citizens of the Middle East on how to be religiously free.”
Further, she equates the meeting in Oslo with what she refers to as the “IRF Lobby” and proceeds to create a caricature of it. For those who may not be familiar with IRF, it is an acronym for 'International Religious Freedom', and became popular in the USA after the establishment of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 that, among other things, established the USCIRF. Professor Hurd accuses the 'IRF lobby' of having a simplistic and exaggerated view of the role of campaigning for respect for and protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief. She says that the IRF agenda sees itself as the solution. In addition, she argues that the IRF and ISIS, while not to be equated “…share more in common than either would care to admit.”
I am the Head of the Human Rights and FoRB department at Stefanus Alliance International, and I was involved with the planning and organizing of the Oslo event. Therefore, I was invited by PluRel to respond to Professor Hurd by addressing some of the issues she raises and describe in a little more detail the purpose of the Oslo meeting. I have five main points I'd like to make:
1. I do not understand Professor Hurd’s claim that the international religious freedom agenda will only embolden ISIS. Following the logic of Professor Hurd one could just as easily say that the international feminist agenda will only embolden violent misogynists. Or that the gay rights agenda will only embolden homophobes. We could perhaps even imagine an article written 60 years ago with the title, “The civil rights movement agenda will only embolden the KKK”. Certainly, some people and groups may be emboldened when their misogynist, racist, homophobic or violent religious views are challenged, but that does not mean that such initiatives don’t have merit. There may be many good grounds for questioning motives and results of the multitude of Human Rights’ initiatives around the globe, but accusing them of emboldening their opponents does not invalidate the positive role they can play.
2. The IPP was not US or UK led. Yes, the USCIRF and the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief in the British Parliament were involved in the IPP. They were very involved, but not more so than Stefanus Alliance International or Abid Raja. In the planning of the Oslo event all four parties were equally involved. During the actual meetings, Abid Raja, who is a Muslim with Pakistani background, chaired all sessions. Representation on the panel was diverse. Only one MP came from the UK. No members of the US congress attended (the US elections made this impossible). Rather, representatives from Pakistan, Uruguay, Nepal, South Africa and Italy, among others, were present. The largest geographical area represented was Latin America. Each parliamentarian was given ample time to present his or her thoughts to the group and participated in the discussions.
The meetings were not dominated by the US or UK. On the contrary, some of the strongest calls for collaboration came from those who live in areas where FoRB is greatly under pressure. The representative from Myanmar stated that the most pressing challenge in Myanmar today is the need to strengthen FoRB. Likewise, the representative from Pakistan acknowledged the importance of respect for FoRB in Pakistan. She stated that although these are dark times for FoRB in Pakistan, there is hope and that within Pakistan’s own history there are rational voices that have called for respect for FoRB. She quoted the first president of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah in his first address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan -  
3. Contrary to Professor Hurd’s focus in her blog post, the main thrust of the IPP meeting was not on ISIS nor the Middle East. In order to make the issue more current and relevant to a broader audience, the situation for religious minorities in the greater Middle East including Syria and Iraq was explicitly included in the publicity in the run up to the meeting, but was not the focus in the meetings. Rather, challenges to FoRB in general, in all corners of the globe were discussed. In fact, when the group decided to make a specific appeal they did not choose the situation in the Middle East, but rather, as mentioned above, to write three letters to world leaders outside of the Middle East. In the first letter (to the president of Pakistan) they addressed the issue of blasphemy. The second letter (written to Myanmar) took up the issue of increasing religious nationalism and the situation for Rohingya Muslims. The third letter (to the Pope) requested a convening of religious leaders to discuss FoRB challenges globally.
4. FoRB (or IRF to use Professors Hurd’s term) was never discussed as the solution for violent conflict nor the answer to establishing stable societies and states. In my nearly 14 years working in the field I have yet to meet another Human Rights activist who thought that the particular right (FoRB, freedom of speech, freedom from torture, etc) or vulnerable group (religious or other minorities, women, LGBT, children, etc) they focused on was the solution for all society’s ills. Nevertheless, focus is often needed to draw attention to areas that are neglected, need special attention or have particular interest or appeal to a specific pressure group. In the course of the meeting Heiner Bielefeldt, the current UN Special Rapporteur for FoRB commented that without FoRB there would be no other Human Rights. FoRB is intricately linked with a cluster of other rights; among them freedom of expression and speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association (Articles 19, 21 and 22 respectively of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Likewise, without freedom of expression and speech there would be no Human Rights. Dr. Bielefeldt argued that each specific human right is necessary, but not sufficient for the fulfillment of all human rights. 
5. The IPP was not, as professor Hurd seems to believe, interested in religion alone. The discussions revolved around the accepted norms of Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The article concerned with the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, including the right to non-theistic and atheistic beliefs as well as the right not to declare any religion or belief. This is perhaps the most salient point of the conference as the two-day meeting culminated with a ceremony where each of the parliamentarians signed the Charter for Religion or Belief. The Charter has three main points: 1) A preamble describing the current state of affairs in the world along with a statement indicating that FoRB is indeed, “… enshrined in international treaties at the United Nations, binding conventions of regional bodies and domestic constitutions;” 2) A reaffirmation of the norms of FoRB as articulated in the UDHR including the right to have, change and practice one’s religion or belief, the right to have no belief at all and the inter-connectedness of FoRB with other Human Rights; 3) A common commitment that each signatory will strive to:
  • Promote freedom of religion or belief for all persons through their work and respective institutions.
  • Enhance global cooperation by endeavoring to work across geographical, political and religious     lines
  • Jointly promote freedom of religion or belief, share information, and mobilize effective responses.
As a Human Rights activist who has followed closely the developments in the field of FoRB the last decade and a half, I am very excited to see this type of initiative. It takes seriously the norms of FoRB. While drawing mostly on Article 18 of the UDHR, the Charter also takes up issues addressed in other international normative documents, such as Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, and General Comment 22: The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
Professor Hurd ends her blog with the following, 
Despite the rhetoric in Oslo and the momentum of the new religion agenda in Brussels, Washington and Ottawa, the last thing the people of the Middle East need is a religious charter that will only serve to embolden ISIS among its followers. If a solution exists, it lies beyond religious freedom, and with the people of the region.
Since Professor Hurd was not in Oslo, I’m not sure she knows what the “rhetoric in Oslo” was, but having been a part of the meeting from beginning to end I know that it was a rhetoric driven not by Brussels, Washington or Ottawa, but rather, by Islamabad, Yangon, Katmandu, Buenos Aires, Brasilia and other non-Western places. While ISIS and its followers may be emboldened, I hope that this initiative will, like other initiatives such as those led by Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi and countless others, embolden individuals around the globe, parliamentarians and farmers, diplomats and factory workers, judges and shop owners to demand their right to freely have, change and practice their faith or worldview. I’m sure that whatever solutions exist will most certainly involve the “people of the region” and will just as certainly involve respect for FoRB. Not as the solution, but as part of the solution
Ed Brown is Head of the Section for Human Rights and the Freedom of Religion or Belief at the Norwegian NGO Stefanus Alliance International
By Ed Brown
Published Nov. 23, 2014 8:09 PM - Last modified Sep. 25, 2019 2:53 PM