EU: 10th Anniversary EU Freedom of religion or belief Guidelines: a Dutch CSO viewpoint
Event organized under auspices of MEPs Peter van Dalen and Carlo Fidanza at the European Parliament on 29 June.
By Hans Noot, Round Table on Freedom of Religion or Belief
HRWF (29.06.2023) – As we celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief, I am thrilled to be able to add my voice in the form of a both congratulatory and analytical remark. As all EU member states signed up to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, they showed their commitment to a list of formulated human rights. They signed up to acknowledge dignity to all human beings by protecting their natural rights by law.
As the EU developed over the past few decades it became time to prescribe a united intent to promote freedom or religion or belief on EU level. In 2013 it came down to these EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief. And now, as we celebrate 10 years of its existence, it is time to take stock.
How it was before…
In the days of its creation, I remember participating in the EU Fundamental Rights Agency’s planning meetings in Vienna. I was then completely caught off guard to find out that of the myriad of human rights topics that were discussed, not one word was spoken about freedom of religion or belief, freedom of conscience or freedom of speech. Moreover, when I suggested that this was a topic to take seriously, some organizations reacted with the oversimplified argument that there were much more important topics to tackle and that religions were specifically the root cause of many wars and most other troubles in Europe. I was shocked that such a viewpoint could exist amongst policy makers. Since that time the EU Guidelines for Freedom of Religion or Belief have been adopted, and I hear little of this ignorant comment regarding the alleged danger of so-called warmongering religions in Europe.
Why Freedom of religion or belief?
Freedom of religion or belief, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are not only a matter of acceptance of human dignity but they lie at the core of good governance and democracy. Without freedom of conscience and expression, fair elections are not possible. And without freedom of religion or belief, there is no freedom of conscience, or the expression thereof. Without freedom of conscience, people fall back into the role of robots and puppets in a feudal system. We currently see the consequences of this ignorance in states where this is the case and where, in war time, people become mere gun fodder. Individuals are then at the mercy of the state, and they become a means to an end. The three aforementioned human rights are intertwined and they form the core of a healthy society. Research points out the relationship between freedom of religion or belief and societal indicators in a nation:
- Equality and Non-Discrimination: Freedom of religion or belief is closely linked to the principles of equality and non-discrimination. Ensuring that individuals can freely live according to their conscience without fear of persecution or discrimination is essential for upholding human rights and promoting equal opportunities for all.
- Peaceful Coexistence: Societies that respect and protect freedom of religion or belief often experience greater levels of peaceful coexistence between religious groups. When religious or belief-based tensions are managed through legal frameworks, safe and fair dialogue, it can help prevent conflicts and foster a more harmonious society.
- Social Cohesion: Freedom of religion or belief can contribute to social harmony and inclusiveness by fostering a climate of tolerance and respect for diversity. Allowing individuals to practice their religion or belief freely, helps promote understanding, dialogue, and cooperation among different religious and non-religious groups within a society.
- Development and Progress: Studies have suggested that societies with higher levels of religious freedom tend to experience greater economic development, political stability, and social progress. When individuals are free to follow their conscience and participate fully in society, it can lead to greater innovation, creativity, and contributions to the overall well-being of the community.
Societal advantages for freedom of religion or belief require a free market for freedom of conscience, speech and religion with as few restrictions as possible. All voices need to be treated with equal weight and respect, in so far as they also uphold human dignity and human rights.
It is my take that since the adoption of the EU Freedom of Religion or Belief Guidelines, we have seen some areas of progress. Here are some positive elements at least:
- There is more talk about the importance of freedom of religion or belief in the EU. A social debate on this topic is crucial. Only a few days ago, on 24 June, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni supported Freedom of religion or belief with the following statement: “Religious freedom is not a second-class right; it is not a freedom that comes after others or can even be set aside for the benefit of new, so-called freedoms or rights”, and “Religious liberty forms part of the essential core of human rights”. We hope she intends to protect all religions and beliefs equally, and not just Christians.
- Increasingly, more cases on the topic are at least going to court in the EU member states. It means that there is more awareness of legal protection. Howeve, their number at the European Court of Human Rights is not diminishing. Therefore, much work still needs to be done on state level in the EU.
- We have had great success with Ján Figel as EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU, and we praise ourselves fortunate to have Frans van Daele as the current Special Envoy. Amongst their duties they see to
- enhancing the visibility, effectiveness, coherence and accountability of theEU’s freedom of religion or belief polic;
- providing an annual progress report and a comprehensive report on the SpecialEnvoy’s mandat;
- and working in close cooperation with the Council Working Group on Human Rights (COHOM;
- In the EU several governments have allotted some FTE for Special Envoys, such as in the Netherlands with Bea ten Tusscher, who is connected to us through the internet. Also in other countries there are representatives dealing with freedom of religion or belief, such as the UK, Denmark, Slovakia, Germany, Italy, Poland, and
- In many countries there is a host of freedom of religion or belief in NGOs. I, myself, am active in Belgium and in the Netherlands. One of the initiatives that we initiated here in Brussels was to create a Round Table on freedom of religion or belief open to all faiths and beliefs or non-beliefs for discussion.
- I see an increase in NGOs collaborating together to tackle big issues of common interest. Together, they stand much stronger, as they exchange information and share the load.
Some thoughts about the future of freedom of religion or belief
As a conclusion, I will share some remarks and suggestions to improve the collaboration between states and civil society organizations:
- Freedom of religion or belief protection is not just a matter for courts or policy makers. Civil society needs to be motivated, even empowered to deal with the topic. Governments can help facilitate that. And there is a need for increased and effective collaboration between governments and non-governmental agencies. Think of conferences, such as the Ministerial, academic forums, and communal building initiatives. In the Netherlands we have a semi-annual platform with the Foreign Ministry and relevant NGOs that work on Freedom of religion or belief issues, and it is highly appreciated. I am also aware of many municipalities that sponsor inter-religious and local communal initiatives. This can be a source of inspiration for more cities.
- Government and political leaders can help by talking openly about freedom of religion or belief, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech in a free society. Giorgia Meloni’s speech about freedom of religion or belief this week is a good example.
- Curtail government agencies that make unfounded statements stigmatizing so-called dangerous religious cults and let the judiciary fulfil its role on alleged criminal activities of religious groups or their leaders. There should not be a difference in the treatment or acceptance of minority religions and major religions.
- Develop freedom of religion or belief literacy for MEPs and diplomats, both on EU level as well as for each country specifically.
- As we negotiate on trade, cooperation, and safety between nations and global power blocks, it is increasingly necessary to remain faithful to the values that the EU stands for. Let’s not sell these out. The EU was also built on human rights values, not just on economic issues.
- Let’s dare to not only look at human rights violations across our own borders, but in our own back yards as well. That would create credibility when pointing our fingers.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.