EU statement: Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief

September 27, 2019

These are strong words and most welcome sentiments. The burning question for the European Union and the world at large, however, is whether they will result in equally strong action. The persecution of Christians worldwide is at record levels. Sam Brownback, the United States ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, recently said: “There is more persecution of Christians now, arguably than any time in the history of the world, and the Christian faith is the most persecuted faith in the world, by far.” Yet the issue continues to be met with appalling indifference. We hope this statement heralds a change.

“EU statement: Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief,” OSCE, September 19, 2019:

Mr. Moderator,

The EU attaches the greatest importance to the promotion and protection of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief as a fundamental human right and has made it one of the priorities of its human rights foreign policy. The EU Foreign Affairs Council adopted specific Guidelines in June 2013 which contain clearly defined priorities and tools for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief worldwide.

With these Guidelines, the EU reaffirms its determination to promote freedom of religion or belief as a right to be exercised by everyone everywhere, based on the principles of equality, non-discrimination and universality.

In doing so, the EU focuses on the right of individuals, to believe or not to believe, and, alone or in community with others, to freely manifest their beliefs in public or in private, in worship, observance practice and teaching, without fear of intimidation, discrimination, violence or attack. Individuals have also the right to change one’s religion or belief or to renounce it. The EU does not consider the merits of the different religions or beliefs, or the lack thereof, but ensures that the right to believe or not to believe is upheld.

Our recommendations are:

Participating States should fulfil their commitments by facilitating groups, associations and communities built upon religious and/or non-religious beliefs to peacefully operate and publicly manifest their beliefs, and respecting their autonomy. We underline the importance of establishing fair and clear rules and procedures which do not infringe upon OSCE commitments and international human rights standards, as outlined in the OSCE/ODIHR “Guidelines on the legal personality of religious or belief communities”.

States have an obligation to guarantee human rights protection, and to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against persons based on their religion or belief. Violence or the threat thereof – such as killing, execution, disappearance, torture, sexual violence, abduction and inhuman or degrading treatment – are widespread phenomena that have to be addressed.

We assert that violence against persons, groups or communities, and against the right of individuals to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, is unacceptable under any circumstances, and we strongly encourage state and other influential actors in a society, whether religious or not, to speak out against acts of violence and to publicly denounce such acts at the highest level. Violence perpetrated under the pretext of a religious prescription or practice, such as violence against women and girls including “honour” killings, female genital mutilation, child early and forced marriages as well as violence perpetrated against persons based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is also unacceptable.

The promotion of religious tolerance, respect for diversity and mutual understanding are of utmost importance with a view to creating an environment conducive to the full enjoyment by all persons of freedom of religion or belief. The EU calls on states to promote, through the educational system and other means, respect for diversity and mutual understanding by encouraging a wider knowledge of the diversity of religions and beliefs within their jurisdiction.

States have a duty to protect all persons within their jurisdiction from direct and indirect discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, whatever the reasons advanced for such discrimination. This includes the duty to rescind discriminatory legislation, implement legislation that protects freedom of religion or belief, and halt official practices that cause discrimination, as well as to protect people from discrimination by state and other influential actors, whether religious or non- religious.

States must fight against violations of freedom of religion or belief in an inclusive manner, whereby avoiding any discrimination in favour of or to the detriment of a particular religion or belief.

Freedom of religion or belief and the freedom of expression are interdependent, interrelated and mutually reinforcing rights. Taken together, freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression play an important role in the fight against all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. We highlight the positive role that free and independent media can have on preventing the increase of bias and prejudice based on religion and in promoting mutual respect and understanding, including through specific educational and awareness-raising programmes.

We stress the important role of political leaders, elected and state officials, as well as civil society and religious leaders, in denouncing in a clear and timely manner public manifestations of intolerance based on religion or belief.

Freedom of religion or belief is also an essential pillar of safe and peaceful societies. It is linked to freedom of opinion and expression, to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, without which there can be no freedom of religion or belief, as well as other human rights, and fundamental freedoms, all of which contribute to the establishment of pluralistic, tolerant, inclusive and democratic societies. Conversely, violations of freedom of religion or belief are often early warnings of potential tensions or conflicts.

We are concerned about the persistence of cases of violations of freedom of religion or belief in the OSCE area. These violations, whether committed by state or non-state actors, may take various forms: acts of discrimination or violence on the basis of religion or belief or committed in the name of religion, undue restrictions on freedom of religion or belief. Restrictions often imposed by States include the denial of legal personality to religious or belief communities, denial of access to places of worship, assembly and burial, repression of unregistered religious activities, the outright banning of a religion on the pretext of the fight against terrorism or extremism.

We encourage the OSCE states to invite UN Human Rights Special Procedures, particularly the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and to accept and implement UN recommendations, including from treaty monitoring bodies and the Universal Periodic Review.

We encourage ODIHR to address the issue of freedom of religion or belief, including its connection to the issue of tolerance and non-discrimination, in the framework of its wider work on the fight against all forms of intolerance and discrimination.

We support the promotion of opportunities for an open dialogue among representatives of religious and non-religious groups and policy makers on all relevant issues.

We express our full support for the work of ODIHR and its Advisory Panel on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which provides legal support to participating States in the implementation of their OSCE commitments. We also encourage cooperation between The European Union, the OSCE, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Thank you.

The Candidate Countries REPUBLIC of NORTH MACEDONIA*, MONTENEGRO*, SERBIA* and ALBANIA*, the Country of the Stabilisation and Association Process and Potential Candidate BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA, and the EFTA countries ICELAND and LIECHTENSTEIN, members of the European Economic Area, as well as REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA, ARMENIA and GEORGIA align themselves with this statement.
* Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Albania continue to be part of the Stabilisation and Association Process.