EU:European democracy too immature to address freedom of religion or belief?

By Jonathan de Leyser, CSW’s Senior EU Advocate

FoRB in Full (30.04.2024) – While the situation of people in other countries is too rarely a priority electoral issue, some politicisation of human rights is nevertheless common. From the perspective of an advocate for freedom of religion or belief, when done correctly and appropriately, party-political engagement on this human right can of course be expedient. At its best, it can elevate public attention to often severe injustices occurring abroad, and lay a strong policy platform for how they will be addressed post-election. But, at its worst, political positions and electoral tactics can be employed that lack sincerity, nuance, and even basic good will.

Mistakes in this area are perpetrated by both conservatives and progressives. This piece summarises some of the things that these political blocs tend to get wrong and right, respectively. It is meant both for the benefit of voters, making them more aware of the calculations and strategies happening behind the scenes in party HQs; and also, to hold up a mirror to those directly involved in campaigning, challenging them to think more critically, and constructively, about their approaches.

The unfortunate but apparent reality is that European democracy is not yet sufficiently mature enough to distinguish “religion” from the “human right to freedom of religion or belief” (FoRB). A symptom of this is that recent cross-party work on this fundamental right at the European level has been fractured and weak. Even though the promotion of one “religion”, and the promotion of “FoRB”, present different agendas, politically, they are too often confused and conflated. It is therefore a rare and valuable conservative politician who does not misuse the promotion of FoRB as a trojan horse for religious conservative issues; and it is a rare and equally valuable progressive politician who does not simply opt out of engaging with FoRB, given this reputational association which it has apathetically ceded to the political right.

This brings us to the respective strengths and weaknesses of many conservatives and progressives when it comes to political engagement on FoRB. Whereas conservatives tend to be stronger on intensity of engagement and weaker on conceptual understanding, progressives tend to be weaker on intensity of engagement and stronger on conceptual understanding.  

The reasons for the strengths of each group are well-known, so let us focus on the explanation of their respective weaknesses – which is, after all, where the focus of reform needs to be.

For European progressives, weaker engagement stems from an under-developed consideration of the value and implications of FoRB, both in terms of its legal and moral quality as a human right, but also in terms of its potential political appeal. They have accepted the conservative fallacy that FoRB is, in fact, a trojan horse for conservative religious politics, rather than seeing it as a liberating force for the rights of the individual – every individual – to believe, not to believe, and to live as they choose. They should be reassured by the well-established place that FoRB has within the international human rights framework, and champion its indivisible and inter-dependent place therein. But sadly, this is a political territory that they have chosen not to contest. On numerous occasions in this term of the European Parliament, within certain legislative texts devoted to the issue, progressives have prefered to neglect opportunities to describe specific countries and cases of FoRB violations, to instead cover the issue only conceptually.

For European conservatives, weaker understanding stems, also, from an under-developed consideration of the value and implications of FoRB. They have consistently shown a bias toward highlighting the plights of Christians only or without appropriate consideration for any other religious or belief community. Without even appealing to any Christian theological (or moral philosophical) reasoning to counter this bias, this approach clearly fails on purely logical, utilitarian terms. Consider the implications of a non-universal reading and application of “human rights” – even, for the sake of argument, accepting an ideologically narrow concern for the rights of Christians only – if one does not stand for the rights of all (both domestically and internationally), on what grounds (politically and institutionally), can one expect the rights of Christians abroad to be respected?

It is unfortunate that conservatives have been too narrow in the boundaries of the communities for whom they have chosen to advocate; and it is unfortunate that the responses of progressives to FoRB violations have lacked prioritisation and intensity of engagement. The good news is that both deficiencies, with the right consideration and political will, can be easily fixed.  

Partly to support this process, CSW has worked with partners on a series of concrete actions that we would encourage all prospective and incoming Members of the European Parliament to take in this area. If these are considered and acted upon by all sides, we can look forward to a more mature democratic conversation about the promotion and protection of FoRB, toward greater justice for the victims of its violation.

Further reading about FORB in the EU on HRWF website