Freedom of religion or belief

The EEAS actively worked on the elaboration of new EU guidelines on freedom of religion or belief adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council in June 2013, following broad consultations with specialised civil society organisations, as well as churches, religious associations or communities and philosophical and non-confessional organisations.

In the guidelines, the EU reaffirms its determination to defend freedom of religion or belief as a right to be exercised by everyone everywhere, based on the principles of equality, non-discrimination and universality. The guidelines notably explain what the international human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief are, and give clear political guidance to officials of EU institutions and EU Member States, to be used in contacts with third countries and with international and civil society organisations. They also provide officials with practical guidance on how to seek to prevent violations of freedom of religion or belief, to analyse cases, and to react effectively to violations wherever they occur, in order to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief in the EU’s external action.

The guidelines build on the universal definition of freedom of religion or belief and focus on eight priority areas for action, which are of equal importance: violence; freedom of expression; promotion of respect for diversity and tolerance; discrimination; changing or leaving one’s religion or belief; manifestation of religion or belief; support and protection for human rights defenders including individual cases; and support for – and engagement with – civil society. It was considered particularly important to highlight freedom of expression in the context of freedom of religion or belief: the two are interdependent interrelated and mutually reinforcing as they protect all persons – as opposed to religions or beliefs in themselves – and those persons’ right to express opinions on any or all religions and beliefs. The guidelines further recall the tools that the EU can use in order to address freedom of religion or belief bilaterally or in multilateral forums.

The adoption of the guidelines was all the more timely, given that increasing incidents of violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief were occurring across the world. Violent incidents and terrorist attacks targeting individuals and sites on grounds of religion or belief happened in various countries, and were condemned by the EU through diplomatic action, statements and Foreign Affairs Council conclusions. As in previous years, freedom of religion or belief was systematically raised with many partners at different levels of political dialogue, including in human rights dialogues, during which freedom of religion or belief and the situation of persons facing severe discrimination or violence the grounds of their religion or belief was addressed.

In multilateral forums, the EU has been particularly active in strengthening the content of freedom of religion or belief resolutions both in the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) and in the United Nations General Assembly. In the 22nd HRC session in March 2013, the EU-led resolution on freedom of religion or belief was adopted once again by consensus. The resolution extends the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and for the first time has explicit language on the right “not to have” a religion. At the Third Committee of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, the EU was successful in improving the human rights aspects of its resolution on Freedom of Religion or Belief. This included, for the first time, a reference to the right to change one’s religion or belief. The resolution was adopted by consensus. The EU engaged actively with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the implementation of UNHRC resolution 16/18 on “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief”. The EU participated in an experts’ meeting on the issue in Geneva in June 2013 which focussed on the implementation of three action points, including one on “adopting measures to criminalise incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief”. The EU put emphasis on the action-oriented nature of Resolution 16/18 and called on all participants to come up with specific achievements as examples for others, as well as continuing engagement to change mind-sets and overcome misperceptions.

As far as the EU’s financial instruments are concerned, the promotion of freedom of religion or belief remained a funding priority under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). In 2013, a global call for proposals on combating discrimination was launched with a total allocation of EUR 20 million, including EUR 5 million specifically to support projects on promoting freedom of religion or belief and combating discrimination on religious or belief grounds. During the 2013 EIDHR Forum – an annual event focusing on the concrete implementation of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights – Freedom of Religion or Belief was one of the key thematic issues discussed in the parallel sessions. This event brought together CSOs that are beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries of the instrument, allowing exchanges on lessons learnt and best practices, in order to improve EIDHR operational support to CSOs and HRDs in this field of action.”