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EU: The European Union can do more to promote religious freedom

EU can do more to promote religious freedom



Euobserver (30.08.2021) – https://bit.ly/3jqGuwx – Reading policy analyses and seeing terms like “religious persecution” and “religious extremism/fundamentalism” proliferate, you might be forgiven for dividing people of faith between victimised minorities and radicalised aggressors.

Indeed, this framing has influenced much (Western) international policy on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

Recently, however, this narrative has been challenged by the recognition of religious actors’ potential to positively influence the pressing societal issues of today – not least because, according to Religions for Peace, they are among the most trusted members of their communities.

FoRB – which includes the right to practice one’s belief, as well as the right not to believe – is a fundamental requisite for peaceful coexistence.

At their essence, peaceful societies protect all human rights and enable diversity to flourish. When religious freedom is threatened, social cohesion suffers, and conflict grows.

Many actors – including Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peace-building organisation – now realise the valuable contributions religious actors make to societies.

While a secular organisation, over the past decades we have worked with hundreds of thousands of religious actors across five continents, and recognise the strategic importance of constructively engaging such a large and influential sector of society.

We also understand that engaging religious actors can be daunting. Decision-makers in secular institutions like the EU may not see the benefits of involving them, or feel uncomfortable doing so.

Indeed, it would be naive not to acknowledge the sensitivities and challenges of engaging certain religious actors. As the Pew Research Center notes that 84 percent of the world identify with a religious community, it would be equally naive not to take them into account, it would be equally naive not to engage with them at all.

The appointment of Christos Stylianides as the new special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief reaffirms the EU’s role as a major international advocate for religious freedom.

As the new special envoy takes office, here are three ways the EU can take action to acknowledge the key role FoRB plays in wider social issues.

Three ways

Firstly, FoRB must be understood as a fundamental right like any other, rejecting the trend to see it as inimical to women’s or LGBTQI rights, or freedom of expression – or, obversely, superior to other rights.

Recognising FoRB’s interconnection with other rights enables us to address overlapping concerns and intersectional claims.

Search will take such an approach as part of a new secular and interfaith partnership: the Joint Initiative for Strategic Religious Action (JISRA).

JISRA will work with religious actors, including women and youth, across seven conflict regions in Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Asia to strengthen their ability to engage in dialogue on religious tolerance and peace, as well as support them in their advocacy around FoRB.

Secondly, FoRB must be acknowledged as a key component of peaceful and resilient societies.

The EU’s Global Exchange on Religion and Society reflects a growing understanding of the value of engaging religious actors on a wide range of societal issues.

In addition, the Council Conclusions on an EU Approach to Cultural Heritage in conflicts and crises, adopted in June, highlight the need for interfaith dialogue and the inclusion of religious minorities as part of the EU’s external push for peace, democracy and sustainable development.

Our years of experience organising inter-religious freedom round tables in Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Jordan, and Lebanon, or advocating with faith leaders for the protection of holy sites in Jerusalem and Nigeria, confirm their importance.

As with all approaches to FoRB and peace-building generally, women, youth, and other vulnerable groups like religious minorities, need to be included in these exchanges.

These groups often experience unique violations of their rights and, when included, bring new perspectives and unforeseen solutions to conflicts.

Thirdly, EU institutions and staff must receive adequate training on FoRB, and specifically on its role in conflict transformation.

Increasing their faith literacy as well as their understanding of religious engagement’s value would be in line with the 2013 guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief which committed the European External Action Service to developing training materials for field and headquartered staff.

Trainings such as the joint Search for Common Ground and the US Institute for Peace’s recently launched free online course on Religious Engagement in Peacebuilding – A Common Ground Approach provide an introduction for anyone interested in religious engagement and FoRB in conflict contexts.

Neither peace-building nor advancing FoRB are linear processes. Setbacks require patience, steadfastness and a long-term belief in the possible.

But with its new special envoy at the helm, the EU can play a significant role in effectively moving us towards a world where our diversity of beliefs is valued and respected by all.

Photo : Former European Commissioner Christos Stylianides is appointed special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief. (Photo: European Commission)

Further reading about FORB in EU on HRWF website

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CHINA: EU votes for diplomats to boycott China Winter Olympics

EU votes for diplomats to boycott China Winter Olympics over rights abuses

Non-binding resolution also calls for governments to impose further sanctions on China as tensions rise


By Helen Davidson


The Guardian (09.07.2021) – https://bit.ly/3wyXLHf – The European parliament has overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on diplomatic officials to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in response to continuing human rights abuses by the Chinese government. In escalating tensions between the EU and China, the non-binding resolution also called for governments to impose further sanctions, provide emergency visas to Hong Kong journalists and further support Hongkongers to move to Europe.


It was passed with 578 votes in favour to 29 against, with 73 abstentions, and was supported by all of Europe’s mainstream political groups, including the centre-right European People’s party (EPP) group of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the centrists of France’s Emmanuel Macron.


The 28-point resolution called for EU officials and member states to decline all government and diplomatic invitations to the 2022 Winter Olympics “unless the Chinese government demonstrates a verifiable improvement in the human rights situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uyghur region, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in China”.


The resolution had a focus on the Hong Kong crackdown and cited numerous specific instances of concern, including “notably” the shutdown of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and prosecution of staff and owners, the introduction and use of the national security law and a dob-in community hotline, and changes to education, the courts, and elections.


“The promotion of and respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law should remain at the centre of the longstanding relationship between the EU and China, in line with the EU’s commitment to upholding these values in its external action and China’s expressed interest in adhering to them in its own development and international cooperation,” it said.


Beijing has so far resisted calls for it to improve its human rights record in the face of an Olympics boycott movement, instead denying any wrongdoing and accusing countries of interfering in internal affairs.


In response to separate boycott calls by the UK’s Labour party, China’s ministry of foreign affairs said on Thursday it accused some people of attempting to disrupt or sabotage the Olympics “out of political motivation”.


“China firmly opposes the politicisation of sports, and the interference in other countries’ internal affairs by using human rights issues as a pretext,” said the ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin.


The EU resolution is the latest flashpoint between the EU and China over the latter’s human rights issues, with recent tit-for-tat sanctions prompting the freezing of a trade deal before it was even ratified. The resolution said the deal would stay blocked until China lifted sanctions on EU parliamentarians and scholars.


China’s nationalistic state-owned tabloid, the Global Times, decried the resolution as the act of “a collection of the most radical and extreme ideologies in western society, providing a stage for various political vices attempting to draw wide attention”.


“At the [European parliament], regardless of facts, responsibility and consequences, those anti-China forces just attempt to achieve the loudest voice and biggest impact,” it said, advising the body to “restrain themselves”. “Beijing will not exchange China’s core interests for some European forces’ support of the Winter Olympic Games.”


However, the editorial said the “destructive” effect of the EU parliament could not be underestimated, noting the blocked trade deal. “This proves that their efforts are not that futile,” it said.


Photo credits: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

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CHINA: The CCP At 100: What next for human rights in EU-China relations?

The CCP At 100: What next for human rights in EU-China relations?

By Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy


9Dashline (01.07.2021) – https://bit.ly/3jFm839 – July 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP, as the ruling, and self-proclaimed “great, glorious, and correct” political party of modern China, has overseen the country’s economic growth, and imposed communist ideology and absolute party-state control over citizens’ lives. The CCP today remains central to society and the daily experiences that have shaped the Chinese people. July 2021 also marks 26 years since Brussels and Beijing launched a specific dialogue on human rights. The goal, as both established, was to engage and conduct open and frank discussions on “jointly agreed key priority areas”. Yet, in the following years, human rights have become one of their most challenging policy areas, even deciding the fate of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.


In light of grand strategic, but increasingly mutually exclusive ambitions, namely Brussels’ ‘geopolitical’ agenda and Beijing’s ‘Chinese Dream’ to realise national rejuvenation and achieve great-power status, what are the prospects for human rights to gain a more prominent role in EU-China relations? With its toughening stance on China, but confronted with the enormous ideological challenge of the CCP as it turns 100, can Brussels address the discursive dissonance burdening EU-China ties, and champion human dignity for all?


The big picture


In China’s particular brand of authoritarianism, control remains key. Under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, the CCP has tightened its grip over society and strengthened ideological control; minorities suffer mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, and indoctrination. Externally, seeing human rights as an “existential threat”, Beijing has sought to undermine international human rights standards and institutions, including working to weaken the UN Human Rights Council, that could hold it to account, and promote alternative views at the expense of liberal democratic values.


As China entails a multi-dimensional threat to Europe, it requires a multi-dimensional strategy. Conferring a prominent role to human rights in its approach to China will be vital for Brussels’ efforts to champion human rights for all.


Overall, the EU-China strategic partnership hit its lowest point in 2021, intensifying the underlying mutual distrust, with democracy, human rights, and rule of law remaining significant ‘problems’. Politically, democratic governance in the EU is grappling with the ideological challenge of an authoritarian China. This is all the more dangerous to an EU weakened by its crisis management mode for over a decade, following the 2008 global financial crisis, migration, Brexit, with the pandemic accelerating negative trends such as rising populism and nationalism.


Along with internal challenges to democracy, external factors, such as the United States’ abdication of power under President Trump and an aggressive Russia, have also affected self-perceptions inside the EU, forcing a re-evaluation of its global role, with an increasing number of voices urging greater self-reliance and resilience, or ‘strategic autonomy’.


The EU’s internal vulnerability has encouraged the CCP to double down on unofficial channels to influence internal debate and the political system in the EU, through opaque, deceptive or manipulative operations. This has meant going beyond legitimate public diplomacy, including using disinformation and ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy to undermine Western democracies and sow internal divisions. In 2014, President Xi referred to the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a CCP-organisation to exert influence abroad, as a “magic weapon” for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, there to serve the CCP’s efforts “to seize victory, construction, and reform”.


China’s economic diplomacy and renewed mercantilism have served the CCP’s ambitions to become a driver of change, fuelling a sentiment of national pride, supported by the belligerent ‘wolf warriors’ defending their country’s national interests. Through initiatives such as the 16+1 framework, Beijing sought to divide the EU, damaging its ability to act cohesively on foreign policy issues, including on human rights. While trade remains a shared priority, the glaring asymmetry in market access has served the interests of the Chinese state and its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) at the expense of their European counterparts.


The ‘problem’ of human rights


“The reality is that the EU and China have fundamental divergences, be it about their economic systems and managing globalisation, democracy and human rights”, European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and EEAS High Representative Josep Borrell recently said. As China’s human rights record remains dismal, their divergence has only intensified.


In this climate of confrontation, holding China to honour its own commitments to respect human rights has grown to be an even bigger challenge. Human rights have always been a ‘sensitive issue’ — whereas Brussels sees these as universal and therefore up for discussion, Beijing perceives them as a domestic affair and therefore off-limits. As a result, the human rights dialogue established in 1995 to identify “jointly agreed key priority areas” never facilitated a convergence of views. Instead, the gap between the discourse in joint EU-China statements to embrace human rights, and the practice to effectively cooperate towards their protection has only widened.


Discourse has always played a powerful role in shaping bilateral relations. Since 2003, both parties have framed each other as ‘strategic partners’, agreeing “to continue to consolidate and develop the partnership to the benefit of both sides”. Yearly summit statements have reiterated a bilateral cooperation approach based on “a considerable number of common priorities”. In their 2019 summit, the two sides even recognised “their responsibility to lead by example” in global governance and reaffirmed that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated”.


Yet, the reality of human rights in EU-China relations is one of normative divergence, which paradoxically, co-exists with growing bilateral trade, albeit to varying degrees for individual member states, despite headwinds to Chinese investment across the bloc.


CAI — values vs. interests?


Brussels’ toughening stance on China, however, suggests that in the future human rights could play a more prominent role in bilateral ties. With the EU labelling China “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”, a political reckoning is taking place on the kind of relationship Brussels wants to have with an increasingly authoritarian government that is oppressing its own people and undermining democracy abroad, as it continues to invest in Europe’s critical infrastructure.


The reckoning includes reflections on the role Brussels — and member states — want the EU to play in the world, including in the Indo-Pacific, a region shaped by China’s power projection, and the multilateral strategic alignment of like-minded democracies. A vocal European Parliament has been consistently pushing for “a new and more robust strategy to deal with a more assertive China”, urging the EU to use its economic leverage to challenge China’s crackdown on human rights by economic means.


In the early months of 2021, Brussels’ and Beijing’s diverging positions on human rights shaped the fate of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Following the conclusion of negotiations on CAI in December 2020, the EU sanctioned Chinese officials believed to be involved in human rights violations of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. In a significant step forward for human rights protection, Brussels imposed these sanctions under the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime adopted in December 2020. Beijing retaliated with its own counter-sanctions on European individuals, including MEPs whose support was vital to CAI.


Signalling the European Parliament’s (EP) willingness to prioritise human rights, its Members voted to freeze the CAI and called on the Commission to “use the debate around CAI as a leverage instrument to improve the protection of human rights and support for civil society in China”. The EU is also adopting more robust measures to protect itself against perceived overseas threats, including an investment screening mechanism, and legislation to crack down on state-owned enterprises from outside the EU. EU institutions have agreed on a revised export control regime on cyber-surveillance and facial recognition software that can be used in human rights violations and issued a toolbox on 5G security and an action plan on disinformation. While the EP’s role is significant, it will be the member states’ willingness that will shape Brussels’ capacity to influence China’s development.


The notion of Europe’s normative power, particularly the idea that the EU can have a transformative impact on China, has been crucial in shaping the EU’s approach to human rights. The concept is now side-lined by the perception that China is a “systemic rival”. However, the past two decades have shown that despite the EU’s efforts to shape China’s development in line with international norms, “shared visions and interests” in bilateral relations, as the Commission stated in 2003, seem to be a thing of the past. Instead, Beijing is pursuing a grand strategy of reshaping and dominating the regional and international order through a variety of tools and influence campaigns. In this process, ideas, discourse, as well as critical technologies all matter. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping spelt out his approach to international messaging as “working hard to create new concepts, new categories and new expressions that integrate the Chinese and the foreign, telling China’s story well, communicating China’s voice well”.


Making China lovable


In June this year, President Xi said that “we must focus on setting the tone right, be open and confident but also modest and humble, and strive to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China”. This reveals the limits of the regime’s heavy-handed style, and its failure to cultivate goodwill through soft power. Yet, instead of conforming to its own commitments to international norms and using genuine public diplomacy to win the hearts and minds of the world, the CCP is confronting the West while seeking to comfort its domestic audience. All this is geared to maintain its legitimacy.


The leadership’s goal to build a “community of common destiny for mankind” as the primary aim of its foreign policy has however long raised questions in the international community. Document 9 raised even bigger questions, when reports appeared in the spring of 2013, that Party leadership was urged to guard against seven political “perils”, including “universal values” and the promotion of “the West’s view of media”. Ironically, the communiqué urged Party members to strengthen resistance to “infiltration” by outside ideas and to handle with renewed vigilance all ideas, institutions, and people deemed threatening to unilateral Party rule. As the CCP celebrates its one hundred years, the message is to shape perceptions; to infiltrate and resist infiltration.


But the CCP’s triumphalist rhetoric hides an inconvenient truth: the fracturing of Chinese society, due to ethnic and gender discrimination, as well as a severe rural-urban divide. Important sectors of society, whose support is vital for pursuing national goals, are unable to participate in China’s intellectual and political life. As China faces dramatically declining birth rates, women still continue to be viewed as reproductive tools to achieve the nation’s development goals.


Looking ahead


Does the decision to impose sanctions for human rights abuses in Xinjiang foretell Brussels’ readiness to use its tools to ensure a more prominent role for human rights in EU-China relations? Beijing’s attempts to manipulate Europe’s political and economic vulnerabilities have brought about a backlash from EU member states, and decisive action from the European Parliament. But ultimately, it is the political will of member states that will be decisive in shaping the extent to which Brussels will use the measures in place and address human rights in its future dealings with Beijing.


“China is coming closer to us,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg with an ominous undertone. As China entails a multi-dimensional threat to Europe, it requires a multi-dimensional strategy. Conferring a prominent role to human rights in its approach to China will be vital for Brussels’ efforts to champion human rights for all.

Author biography

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy PhD is author of ‘Europe, China, and the Limits of Normative Power(Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019), Affiliated Scholar at the Department of Political Science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Consultant on China and Korean Peninsula at Human Rights Without Frontiers, former political advisor in the European Parliament (2008-2020). She is a Non-Resident Fellow at Taiwan NextGen Foundation and Head of the Associate Network at 9DASHLINE.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of the 9DASHLINE.com platform.


Photo credits: CNN

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EU: Launching of the first Interactive Map on FGM Laws, Policies and Data in Europe/ 28 May 2021, International Day for Women’s Health

EU: Launching the first Interactive Map on FGM Laws, Policies and Data in Europe

On Friday, 28 May 2021, International Day for Women’s Health, End FGM EU launched the FGM in Europe online interactive map in a high-level launch event with European decision-makers.


Endfgm.eu (28.05.2021) – https://bit.ly/3uKu9pp – The event presented the map and its potential as an available and accessible resource on FGM in Europe. It also focused on specific aspects of working to address FGM in Europe. Officials from countries with promising practices shared their knowledge during breakout sessions on “Community engagement and Protection for persons at risk of FGM” and “Funding and data collection on FGM’. You can watch the Facebook Live replay here.


Chiara Cosentino, End FGM EU Head of Policy and Advocacy said “As the European umbrella organisation working on FGM, our expertise and bird’s eye view of the European context is highly valued by many stakeholders. Yet, we realised that this insight was only available on demand. This is why we decided to create this resource with our members and share the richness of our collective knowledge with a wider audience.”


We hope that this map will not only serve as a source of information but also as a well of inspiration to do better and continue to improve our work to end FGM and our support of FGM Survivors. We want countries to learn from each other and strive to better their laws, policies, services and data collection efforts. We want to encourage mutual learning and cooperation towards ending FGM for All in Europe and beyond.


The End FGM EU Interactive map is now officially live! You can access it here: https://map.endfgm.eu/map




Between 2019 and 2020, End FGM EU conducted, together with its members, a thorough mapping around laws, policies, services and data collection in the 14 European countries where its members operate. Information has been collected systematically and homogenously through a standard questionnaire to ensure comparability among countries and promote improvement and mutual learning at the national level. The questionnaire, developed by the End FGM EU Secretariat, has been inspired by the Sexual Rights Database project. The research has been conducted at the European level by End FGM EU and has been cross-checked and validated by national members at the country level.


The development of this online interactive map and database has been made possible by the support of the European Commission, Rights Equality and Citizenship Programme, Sigrid Rausing Trust and Wallace Global Fund.


Photo credits: endfgm.eu 

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EU: ‘Political backlash’ blamed for halting LGBT+ rights gains in Europe

Legislative progress on LGBT+ rights have come to a near-standstill as polarisation mounted from Poland to Turkey, report says


By Rachel Savage


Openly News (17.05.2021) – https://bit.ly/3vpuFtZ – Progress on laws to boost LGBT+ rights has come to a virtual standstill in Europe amid a rise in homophobic and anti-transgender rhetoric by politicians in countries including Poland and Hungary, an advocacy group said on Monday.


Britain, Italy and Ukraine were among the nations that scored lower rankings in this year’s “Rainbow Europe” index compiled by ILGA-Europe, which said legislative reforms had stalled due to increasing polarisation over LGBT+ rights.


“There’s been a clear political backlash in many countries, and not just ones grabbing headlines like Poland and Hungary,” Evelyne Paradis, ILGA-Europe’s executive director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.


Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary has excluded same-sex marriage from the constitution, effectively banned gay adoptions and legal recognition of trans people, and often depicts homosexuality as an aberration.


In Poland, LGBT+ rights have become a flashpoint in a wider culture war unfolding between religious conservatives and liberals, highlighting what Paradis described as “growing political polarisation” in various countries.


“It’s becoming harder to mobilise across the political spectrum to get the issues done. There’s mounting opposition. There’s also frankly a lack sometimes of political will to see it through,” she said.


Paradis said countries including Sweden, the Netherlands, Britain and France had fallen behind on commitments to implement further LGBT+ rights reforms since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.


There was praise, however, for North Macedonia and Bosnia, which both took steps to protect people who attend LGBT+ Pride marches.


Paradis said the launch of the EU’s first LGBT+ strategy in November 2020 was further evidence that progress was possible during a pandemic.


Malta topped the Rainbow Europe rankings for the sixth consecutive year, improving its score by adding protections for LGBT+ asylum seekers and refugees.


Iceland was commended for letting non-binary people, who do not identify as either male or female, to register their gender as “X” and allowing 15 to 17-year-olds to change legal gender with a parent or guardian’s permission.


Paradis said proposals presented to advance LGBT+ rights in at least 15 countries, including France, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, could be implemented in the coming year.


“Governments have to follow through on their promises,” she said.


Related stories:

Most LGBT+ Europeans fear holding partner’s hand in public

More European politicians found using homophobic hate speech

Hungary amends constitution to redefine family, limits gay adoption



Photo credits: Kuba Atys/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS

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