The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief: Key reports, themes, and issues

by | Mar 26, 2024

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About Farrah Raza

Dr Farrah Raza is a Stipendiary Lecturer in Public Law at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. She is a current member of The Transplantation Society’s Ethics Committee.

The right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) continues to be one of the most important and vulnerable human rights globally. Evidence of rising incidents of racial and religious discrimination, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, demonstrate the continued need for robustly protecting religious freedom by state parties, governmental institutions, private actors, and civil society. This blog highlights key aspects of the current UNSpecial Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Professor Nazila Ghanea’s initial scene setting report of the mandate entitled Landscape of freedom of religion or belief in 2023. Subsequently, two reports entitled Freedom of religion or belief, from the grass-roots level (2023) and Advocacy of hatred based on religion or belief (2024)provide more detail of the mandate and the challenges in practice.

Protecting religious freedom in international human rights law

The right to FORB is protected in international human rights law and in various regional treaties. Article 18 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

Other key regional instruments that protect the right to FORB include Article 18 of the  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,   Article 12 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Moreover, Article 25 of the Arab Charter states that ‘persons belonging to minorities are not to be denied the right to enjoy their own culture, to use their own language and to practise their own religion and that the exercise of those rights is to be governed by law’. These legal instruments highlight the various dimensions of the right to FORB. Precisely because the right to FORB intersects with other rights, including the right to freedom of expression, its protection is complex and contextual.

The importance of religious freedom

The right to FORB continues to be an important right because religion is central to many people’s lives globally. However, the protection of the right is vulnerable and context specific. In other words, religious freedom is a right that should not be taken for granted; it requires positive actions on part of states to ensure protection for all.  Religious freedom is an important ‘identity-forming’ commitment that is worthy of legal protection. As the European Court of Human Rights emphasised in the case of Kokkinakis v Greece that ‘Article 9 is one of the foundations of a plural democratic society that protects the identity of religious believers and others such as atheists and agnostics’. Moreover, the right to FORB is central to protecting equality and preventing discrimination. 

Landscape of freedom of religion or belief

In its resolution 49/5, the Human Rights Council extended the mandate of Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief for a three-year period.  Based on the mandate provided to the Special Rapporteur, her work will focus on three key dimensions which include:

  1. the advancement of freedom of religion or belief to everyone
  2. the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief
  3. addressing the targeting of individuals based on, or in the name of, religion or belief.

Protecting these three dimensions is of central importance as it offers a holistic and strategic approach to realising the mandate and religious freedom. The Resolution emphasises the ‘deep concern at emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and at instances of religious intolerance, discrimination and violence…’ As I have argued in my book entitled Religious Accommodation and its Limits (Hart Publishing 2023), ‘the exercise of religious freedom can entail detrimental consequences for the rights of others’, and therefore the balancing of the relevant interests requires sensitive and careful consideration.

Moreover, the Special Rapporteur emphasises ‘The right to Freedom of Religion or Belief cannot be used as a weapon to oppress or to destroy the basic rights and freedoms of others’. She also elaborates on the ways in which public engagement and outreach to religious leaders and communities is key to ensuring dialogue and understanding. The initial report acknowledges the importance of foreign policy approaches in protecting the right to FORB, whilst emphasising the need for such approaches to be inclusive to ensure protection of religious minorities. Overall, the initial report sets out a promising and ambitious programme with its emphasis on education, outreach, and continuing to support victims of religious persecution and discrimination. The subsequent reports highlight the continued relevance of the issues raised, in particular, the importance of addressing hatred on the basis of religion or belief which often causes ‘dignitarian harm’.Looking forward, it is evident that more work needs to be done with key stakeholders to ensure that religious freedom is protected and that conflicts are resolved in a respectful manner which recognises the identities of all.

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