Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

25th Session of the Human Rights Council Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland
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Mr. Chair, Distinguished Council members, Excellencies

The issue of freedom of religion – its remit and its limits, the role and responsibilities of the State, the divisions between religious institutions and State - go back in history but remain relevant today. Despite the passing of time, upholding everyone’s right to freedom or belief, the right to change their religion or belief or to have no religion or belief at all still today presents challenges and dilemmas.

IDLO is the only inter-governmental organization exclusively devoted to pursuing the rule of law. We believe that the rule of law – with its principles of equality, accountability and equal protection of the law, certainty and non-arbitrary application of laws – is an invaluable tool, to protect the freedom of religion – or no religion - of all individuals and so enhance social harmony.

There is, however a difference in rule of law and rule by law. And, too often, as we note in the recent study we released yesterday here at the Council, the rule of law has been used to deny freedom to others in the name of freedom.

IDLO’s study, supported by the Government of Italy, responds to the Council’s call for global dialogue and pragmatic action to promote and protect the right to freedom of religion or belief, as per resolution 22/31 of March 2013.

The law can play an important role – in protecting religious freedom or undermining it. The rule of law has often been used to suppress freedom of religion and to discriminate against minorities. Yet, the rule of law can play an important role in promoting diversity over uniformity and in fostering the adoption of legal frameworks that go beyond mere tolerance of religious difference toward the active promotion of peaceful co-existence.

It is also important to note that the State has both a role and a responsibility to ensure that its own Institutions uphold the freedom of religion and belief and the rule of law provides a framework to fight prejudice and social discrimination and encourage tolerance.

The debate on religious wear, from the head scarf to the crucifix, exemplifies the critical question of where does legitimate regulation of the state become an unlawful encroachment on the right to freedom? Another critical example is that of religious rites and women’s rights. When should the state push back on religious rules and custom that infringe on women’s rights? As gender equality becomes a key development priority, the issue is being driven down into local communities and will require even greater attention.
As in so many other areas of human rights, the role of non-state actors is critical. Religious leaders can resist religious persecution or promote it.

In recent years, the UN Human Rights Council has witnessed robust discussion on how best to balance different interests, especially between freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression and we welcome today’s report by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Around the world we are witnessing communities and countries torn apart by religious intolerance. In secular democracies we see a tussle around the separation of faith and State, of politics and religion. There is growing political violence in the name of religion. In some countries blasphemy laws have been misused to harass religious minorities, or certain religious minorities are being perceived by as a threat to national security. In other countries, people feel their right to practice religion has been infringed upon by an over-zealous regard for secularism. In yet another interesting development, today the third largest group in the world – after Christians and Muslims – claim to have no religion at all.

The right to freedom of religion or belief forms an integral part of the catalog of human rights to which every individual is legally entitled– it is also key to social harmony, international and national peace and security.