On 4 September 2018, the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance presented its fourth Annual Report on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The Report focuses on violations of freedom of religion or belief which happened outside the European Union in 2017, and sends out a clear message: the EU can and should do much more to protect religious freedom.
With a more transparent methodology developed by an ad-hoc research consortium, and with tailored recommendations, the 2017 Annual Report shows clear improvement on previous editions. In particular, it introduced a scale to qualify situations of freedom of religion or belief in various countries as: minor violations (0-3); problematic issues (4-7); and severe violations (8-10). Out of the 34 focal countries assessed in the Report, 19 display severe violations of freedom of religion or belief. The most extreme violations – rated 10 out of 10 – were reported in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The Report also introduces an analysis of the focalness of the countries considered, which relates to the ‘relevance of these countries to the EU and their sensitivity to its influence.
Through this enhanced analysis, the main message of the Annual Report is abundantly clear: freedom of religion or belief is deteriorating throughout the world and the EU should take renewed and strengthened action to protect and promote this fundamental human right.
In terms of instruments through which the EU could strengthen the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief, two stand out in the Report: the EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the European Union; and the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief.
The position of the EU Special Envoy was announced on 6 May 2016 by the President of the European Commission, on the occasion of the awarding of the ‘Charlemagne Prize’ to Pope Francis at the Vatican. The EU Special Envoy operates as ‘special advisor’ to the Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica. The Annual Report notes that the Special Envoy’s current position is weak: his mandate runs for one year each term with the possibility of a renewal; and the allocated resources, both financially and in terms of support staff, are limited. Therefore, the Annual Report strongly recommends that the position of the EU Special Envoy is strengthened. Not only does it propose that the position should receive greater visibility and resources, but also that it becomes a central focus point for the EU’s external policies related to freedom of religion or belief. In this position, the EU Special Envoy would be a key implementer of the second main tool through which the EU mainstreams religion or belief: the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief.
The Guidelines were adopted in 2013 and exist among eleven sets of EU guidelines that promote human rights in EU external action. The Guidelines on freedom of religion or belief contain toolkits and directions on how the EU should robustly protect and promote freedom of religion or belief in its external action. Although five years have passed since their adoption, and despite the EU’s commitment to evaluate implementation three years after their adoption, the Working Party on Human Rights in the Council (COHOM) has not yet published its implementation report. The Annual Report therefore recommends that the European External Action service should publish the Guidance Note that it issued in 2015, on the basis that: ‘Members of the European Parliament, Members of the Parliament and civil society together might provide a useful source of ideas for improvement, but they can only deliver if they can respond to a public document.’
Indeed, the EU has the ability and means to better protect freedom of religion or belief in its external action, whether it be through bilateral cooperation, country desks and delegations, field visits or financial instruments. As the strength of religious freedom across the globe is noticeably deteriorating, the EU should seriously take into consideration the recommendations of the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance and move to implement them robustly.