Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, Human Rights Council 28th Session

29 December 2014
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Violence committed “in the name of religion”, that is, on the basis of or arrogated to religious tenets of the perpetrator, can lead to massive violations of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.

In the present report, the Special Rapporteur first provides a typological description of various forms of violence carried out in the name of religion. He subsequently explores root causes and relevant factors that underlie such violence. The main message is that violence in the name of religion should not be misperceived as a “natural” outbreak of collective acts of aggression that supposedly reflect sectarian hostilities existing since time immemorial. Rather, it typically originates from contemporary factors and actors, including political circumstances.

The Special Rapporteur also recommends concerted actions by all relevant stakeholders, including States, religious communities, interreligious dialogue initiatives, civil society organizations and media representatives, in order to contain and eventually eliminate the scourge of violence committed in the name of religion.

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III.    Conclusions and recommendations

1.     Violence in the name of religion does not “erupt” in analogy to natural catastrophes and it should not be misconstrued as the inevitable result of sectarian hostilities that supposedly originated centuries or millennia ago, thus seemingly lying outside of the scope of the responsibility that different actors have today. It is important to overcome fatalistic attitudes that often stem from simplistic descriptions of the phenomena. Rather than being rooted in seemingly “perpetual” religious antagonisms, violence in the name of religion is typically caused by contemporary factors and actors, including political circumstances, which provide the fertile ground for the seeds of hatred.

2.     While it would be wrong to focus on religion in isolation when analysing the problem, it would be equally simplistic to reduce religious motives to mere “excuses” for violent crimes perpetrated in their name. What is needed is a holistic understanding of the various factors involved in violence committed in the name of religion. Typical factors are the lack of trust in the rule of law and fair functioning of public institutions; narrow-minded and polarizing interpretations of religious traditions that may bring about societal fragmentation processes with far-reaching negative repercussions on social relations; and policies of deliberate exclusion, often in conjunction with narrowly defined national identity politics and other factors; denial and impunity for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

3.     Only a full account of the various root causes of the problems can build an awareness of the joint responsibility, which a broad range of actors have in fighting violence committed in the name of religion. Against this background, the Special Rapporteur formulates the recommendations below addressed to the various stakeholders.

          A.     Recommendations to all relevant stakeholders

4.     Government representatives, religious communities, civil society organizations, the media and other relevant stakeholders should reject and speak out promptly, clearly and loudly against any acts of violence committed in the name of religion as well as related incitement to violence and discrimination in law and practice, thus overcoming the culture of silence that exists in some countries. They should act swiftly and in concert to deter and stop such violence.

5.     Public condemnations against violence committed in the name of religion should be made on the basis of an adequately complex analysis of the problem, including its underlying systemic root causes.

6.     The different stakeholders should jointly contribute to the containment and eventual elimination of violence committed in the name of religion by making creative use of their space and specific potential. They should also cooperate in neutralizing any possible radicalization efforts that target foreign fighters who returned to their country of origin.

           B.     Recommendations to different State institutions

7.     States have the responsibility to protect its populations, whether nationals or not, from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement.

8.     States have the obligation to act swiftly to stop acts of violence committed in the name of religion, against individuals, groups and places of worship. Overcoming a culture of impunity, wherever it exists, must be a priority. Those who commit or are complicit in acts of violence must be brought to justice.

9.     States should safeguard the memory of all population groups, and of religious communities in particular, including by developing and protecting national archives, memorial museums and monuments.

10.  States must respect freedom of religion or belief and all other human rights when undertaking actions to contain and combat against violence in the name of religion.

11.  Legislation that renders the existence of certain religious communities “illegal” in the country should be revoked.

12.  States should repeal anti-blasphemy laws, anti-conversion laws and any other discriminatory criminal law provisions, including those based on religious laws.

13.  States should provide disaggregated data on acts of violence committed in its jurisdiction, including on possible religious motivations.

14.  In order to operate as a credible guarantor of freedom of religion or belief for everyone, the State should not identify itself exclusively with one particular religion or belief at the expense of equal treatment of the followers of other faiths. Any exclusivist settings should be replaced by an inclusive institutional framework in which religious diversity can unfold without discrimination and without fear.

15.  Anti-discrimination legislation should protect the equality of all in their enjoyment of human rights, across religious or denominational divides, thus preventing or overcoming divisiveness within society. States should in particular take steps to assure that the rights of all will be protected so that all can feel safe in their religions or beliefs.

16.  In close consultation with all relevant stakeholders, States should develop national action plans on how to prevent violence committed in the name of religion, but also other forms of religious persecution carried out by State agencies or non-State actors.

17.  Textbooks used for school education should not contain negative stereotypes and prejudices, which may stoke discrimination or hostile sentiments against any groups, including the followers of certain religions or beliefs.

18.  States should use all available means, including education and community outreach, in order to promote a culture of respect, non-discrimination and appreciation of diversity within the larger society.

19.  National human rights institutions are encouraged to take an active ownership of the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, for the development of strategies towards eliminating the root causes of violence committed in the name of religion.

20.  States should refrain from stoking violent religious extremism in other countries.

          C.     Recommendations to religious communities

21.  When religious communities and their leaders address any violence committed in the name of their religion, they should take seriously the relevance, inter alia, of religious motives often stemming from narrow-minded, polarizing and patriarchal interpretations of religious traditions.

22.  In situations in which speaking out against violence may be dangerous, fellow believers living in safer political environments should lend their voices and clearly condemn violence committed in the name of their religion.

23.  Religious communities and their leaders should promote empathy, respect, non-discrimination and an appreciation of diversity. They should challenge the authenticity claims of religious extremists by exposing their views as being ignorant of the charitable core messages contained in religious traditions. Additionally, they should share with others their beliefs in the importance of respecting the rights of others, thereby contributing to a sense that the rights of all will be respected.

24.  Religious communities should feel encouraged to start initiatives of interreligious communication and cooperation, including the establishment of interreligious councils. A broad representation, including gender balance and participation of different generations, can ensure that larger populations can take active ownership of such initiatives.

          D.     Recommendations to civil society organizations

25.  Civil society organizations should continue to collect information about the situation of human rights and support people living under conditions of intimidation by following up on their cases.

26.  The findings of civil society organizations should be more systematically used in their early warning function, notably in volatile situations.

27.  Civil society should continue to play a role in overcoming a culture of silence in the face of violence committed in the name of religion, thereby sending a signal of solidarity to targeted individuals and groups.

28.  Faith-based and secular civil society organizations should work together, including by creating common platforms, thereby demonstrating that a commitment to human rights can create solidarity across all religious, cultural and philosophical divides.

29.  Human rights defenders operating in dangerous situations deserve particular attention and support by networks designed to defend the defenders.

           E.     Recommendations to the media

30.  In close collaboration with civil society organizations, representatives of the media should defend their independence, professionalism and integrity and address incidents of violence, their various root causes and the political circumstances in which they take place.

31.  The media should help to bring about a culture of public discourse that is a prerequisite to checking hostile rumours and fearful narratives, which should be exposed to public scrutiny or counter-narratives in order to prevent them from escalating to fully-fledged conspiracy projections.

32.  Careful fact-finding is the most important antidote to negative media campaigns that target religious minorities or other groups. Such fact-finding may also include a public analysis of collective historical traumas.

33.  The media can help restore the faculty of empathy by making people aware that the members of groups facing systematic discrimination, far from being “aliens”, have quite similar fears, hopes and feelings.

           F.     Recommendations to the international community

34.  The international community is reminded of its duty to assist and build the capacity of States in fulfilling their commitments to the responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as concluded in the 2005 World Summit.

35.  Human rights mechanisms, including the special procedures, treaty bodies and universal periodic review, are encouraged to address the issue of violence in the name of religion and State involvement in such violence.

36.  The international community should hold States and non-State armed groups to account and make them aware of their existing obligations under international law, including human rights, humanitarian, criminal and refugee law.