Momentum needed to implement UN commitments on combating religious intolerance

Following the conclusion of the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), ARTICLE 19 welcomes the sustained consensus held on two resolutions addressing freedom of religion or belief as well as intolerance based on religion or belief. Both resolutions contain essential commitments for States to address a rising tide of intolerance, as well as violations of the rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. However, as an expert round-table in New York co-hosted by ARTICLE 19 concluded, renewed momentum is required for implementation at the national level, including by reinvigorating the Istanbul Process. 

The two resolutions, on freedom of religion or belief, and on combating intolerance based on religion or belief, were adopted by consensus at the Third Committee of the UNGA on 17 November 2017. They were tabled by Estonia on behalf of the European Union, and by Egypt on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, respectively. They largely reflect parallel UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolutions with the same titles, also adopted annually, the latter commonly referred to by its 2011 reference “HRC resolution 16/18”.

Attention to this issue is timely. Ahead of the 72nd Session, the Secretary General called on all people to speak out against hatred and to recognise the importance of diversity. In recent addresses to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned “hate is being mainstreamed”.

In his annual report to the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, focused on the “implementation gap” between States’ international obligations and commitments, such as those set out in the above-named UNGA and HRC resolutions, and the realities on the ground.

The Special Rapporteur’s report identifies that increasing religious intolerance correlates with States’ imposition of restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, with the rhetoric and actions of public officials further enabling and even fuelling advocacy of religious hatred, which contributes significantly to the potential for violence and conflict. The impact of religious intolerance is in particular felt by women, by religion or belief minorities, and persons expressing dissent.

Addressing this “implementation gap” was the focus of a roundtable discussion hosted by Her Excellency Ambassador Ruth Andreyeva, Development and Human Rights Ambassador at the United Kingdom Mission to the UN, and chaired by Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

full summary of those discussions, held on 26 October 2017 is available online.

The discussion centred on how renewed vigour is needed to drive the implementation agenda forward, to address violations of the freedoms of religion or belief and expression, while combating intolerance on the basis of religion or belief. During the briefing, ARTICLE 19 disseminated its guide to the implementation of HRC resolution 16/18 as “a framework for inclusivity, pluralism and diversity”, as well as its toolkit “’Hate Speech’ Explained.”

While experts at the roundtable agreed that implementation efforts must focus on creating change at the national and local levels, reinvigorating support for implementation from international mechanisms and multilateral cooperation is also crucial. This must include increased engagement with formal reporting mechanisms, to the Secretary General and Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), on the implementation of resolutions, where input from States has reduced in recent years. The Istanbul Process, a series of inter-governmental meetings where practical experiences on the implementation of HRC resolution 16/18 are exchanged, must also be revived and its potential “untapped”. It is also necessary that synergies with other initiatives, such as Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, be taken advantage of.

The summary of the roundtable discussion identifies, in short, six conclusions and priorities for action:

  1. A focus on implementation of existing international human rights obligations and commitments is crucial to combat increasing intolerance on the basis of religion or belief, and also critical to the enjoyment of others human rights, to security and development;
  2. While normative standards relating to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are well established, misunderstandings of these standards are widespread, and must be addressed;
  3. There is growing support for “freedom of religion or belief diplomacy”, which should be further nurtured and harnessed to promote human rights, including in the context of sustainable development;
  4. The report of States on their efforts to implement HRC resolution 16/18, to the OHCHR and the UN Secretary General, must be enhanced, with an emphasis on more States engaging and a greater quality of engagement;
  5. A host for the next Istanbul Process must be identified as a priority, and ideally before the 37th Session of the HRC in March 2018;
  6. The Istanbul Process should be structured to encourage States to be more introspective and self-critical on their own achievements and challenges, which would be greatly enabled by making meetings more practitioner-focused, more inclusive and participatory of all stakeholders, more transparent, and more oriented towards identifying and replicating good practices for implementation;
  7. Synergies with other initiatives, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, must be explored.