Comment on the UN Special Rapporteur’s report “Elimination of all forms of religious intolerance”

This comment was written by Thomas de Bruin, an intern with OLIRE.

On October 12th, 2020, the interim report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, was released.

In his report he focused on multiple aspects of the right to religious freedom and belief. The Special Rapporteur stated that, based on his findings, restrictions on freedom of religion are targeted forms of discrimination that persecute minority communities. Such restrictions are often accompanied by other forms of discrimination and human rights violations. These violations are usually caused by bias in state and non-state institutions and the absence of legislative frameworks to prevent or punish discrimination, hostility and violence based on religion or belief.

The Special Rapporteur further stated that to achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), it requires the elimination of discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief in social, economic, cultural, and political life. He continues by stating that the strategies for advancing the SDGs should take a broad approach. While addressing the economic and material needs, the strategies should also address the socio-cultural and political-legal institutions which cause discrimination based on religion or belief.

Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur wants to stimulate governments to collect more data on freedom of religion and belief. This requires more institutional mechanisms for comprehensive monitoring and data collection.

We are convinced that the report addressed many vital issues within contemporary policies concerning freedom of religion and belief. However, in his report, the Special Rapporteur underestimates the role of non-state actors and their influence on freedom of religion and belief. Non-state actors in this case being paramilitary groups and organized crime.

Especially during the current pandemic, it has been reported that organized crime and paramilitary groups have taken advantage of the state of emergency to increase the power they have over certain communities. Particularly rural areas have been facing this problem and reports state that these groups in some cases take the role of the de facto government. This often limits the ability of religious groups to openly worship, observe, practice, or teach their religion or belief. Although the Special Rapporteur does briefly mention the issue in his report, the role of non-state actors is not touched up on in his recommendations, which we think, is a missed opportunity.

Moreover, it is notable that the Special Rapporteur has little to report on Latin America. It is one of the regions where religion has a huge role in civil society, politics but also in economics. Moreover, it is remarkable because the right to religious freedom and belief in the region has been under pressure, due to either governmental interference or violence coming from organized crime or paramilitary groups. It seems that the Special Rapporteur has more attention for incidents occurring in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Also, in his report the Special rapporteur refers a lot to the actions of policymakers and what their negative role is in freedom of religion or belief. Nonetheless, he does not address this problem in the final recommendations. In many cases, policymakers have little understanding of what the concept of freedom of religion and belief entails in their specific field of work. Therefore, we believe that countries should make more efforts to train their policymakers to gain a better understanding on the concept. In doing so these policymakers become more aware of the effects of different kind of policies on religious freedom.

On the positive side, it is vital that religious freedom should not be addressed as something on its own but rather as something that is part of every aspect of civil society. We acknowledge that freedom of religion and belief is considered when creating strategies focused on obtaining the SDG’s. This has not been the case in earlier strategies.

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The Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America is a program of the Foundation Platform for Social Transformation, a registered charity in Voorburg, The Netherlands under Chamber of Commerce #50264249.

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