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‘Water on a Stone’: UN Expert on the Hard Work of Religious Freedom

Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed on the impact of COVID-19 and Trump, the right to religious conversion, and implementing Muslim declarations.
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‘Water on a Stone’: UN Expert on the Hard Work of Religious Freedom
Image: United Nations
Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Religious freedom requires global consensus.

Despite the best efforts of the Trump administration to prioritize the issue in its foreign policy, the Pew Research Center highlights that government restrictions on religion have hit an all-time high worldwide.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included clear language on religious freedom, including the right to change one’s religious affiliation. But it was not until 1981 that the UN issued its Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Declarations are of little value without accountability.

In 1986, the UN created the position of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). And in 2006, it created a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which nations report on their human rights development every 4.5 years and are required to address the recommendations of the global community.

Ahmed Shaheed, the current special rapporteur, was appointed in 2016 after serving six years as the UN human rights watchdog on Iran.

Formerly a foreign minister of the Maldives, Shaheed was declared an apostate from Islam in his home nation following his efforts to restore democracy and advance human rights.

Prior to this month’s third Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, CT interviewed Shaheed in April as COVID-19 upended the world about recent American efforts to advance international religious freedom (IRF), the balance involved with gender equality, and the best methods to secure the right to religious conversion in the Muslim world:

How has COVID-19 impacted global freedom of religion and belief?

The pandemic is unprecedented in how it is impacting everyone.

As special rapporteur, I have issued three statements so far. The first concerned the cremation of bodies of those who died from the virus—can it be made compulsory, and can relatives attend? Religious practices can be limited to some extent during a time of public health emergency, but I wanted to remind the authorities of their obligations under international law and to be respectful of religious and cultural beliefs within the law.

The second statement was on hate speech targeting minority Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They have been scapegoated and attacked with conspiracy theories claiming they are the ones who spread or even originated this virus. And besides scapegoating, in some cases they were denied access to health care facilities.

The third statement raised alarm specifically on anti-Semitism, which was spiking across the globe.

My statements also highlighted the role that faith-based communities can play at this critical time, in terms of virtual pastoral care and the preservation of community cohesion. And I have applauded how most religious leaders have responded to the humanitarian and socio-economic challenges we have witnessed.

Many American evangelicals have been supportive of the Trump administration’s advocacy for international religious freedom. From your perspective, has it created an atmosphere where there is greater worldwide respect and attention, or has it politicized the issue and been detrimental to the global cause?

I look at US policy in a comprehensive fashion, and not just the president’s remarks. The State Department’s IRF report—covering every nation in the world—and the work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have played an invaluable role over the years.

I’m happy that the Trump administration launched the International Alliance for Religious Freedom and Belief (IRFA), which has over 30 member states. The declaration of principles invokes international human rights law. It is broadly inclusive, representing different religions, different cultures, and different regions of the world.

The State Department report calls out almost every nation in the world. Some states come under more criticism than others, but none can claim to be immune from US criticism. They have criticized Iran, Myanmar, China—they are not focused on a particular religion or region.

The US has raised the profile of religious freedom internationally, but the question is if it is done in a way that respects all human rights, and all nations, so that there is no perception of instrumentalizing religious freedom. But Ambassador at Large Sam Brownback recognizes this, and I have been broadly positive about the work carried out by his IRF office.

Tell us about the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), and how they advocate for their community.

They are very active, very informative, very committed, and very inclusive. I’m very happy to work with them. As special rapporteur I am a one-man operation, and I rely on civil society to be the eyes and ears for my mandate and to help communicate with people on the ground. They add value to my work and increase my capacity.

How do religious liberty and gender equality work together, especially on LGBT issues?

Both communities must feel honored in their commitments. What I am suggesting is that when these two rights clash, religious freedom and nondiscrimination, we have to find a way to minimize it through co-respect.

The No. 1 priority for religious groups is freedom from coercion. It is a red line to compel someone to go against their faith commitments. On the other hand, we also cannot undermine someone’s claim to equality by excluding or marginalizing them. This is also a red line. Compromises are needed on a case-by-case basis.

When it comes to abortion, I recognize that this is a red line for many faith communities. The state cannot force an individual service provider to perform abortions. But the state also has an obligation to the women, for example in a life-saving situation, or to ensure autonomy over their bodies and have access to the highest attainable standard of health.

What is more difficult is when in some contexts people feel an obligation to make everyone behave as they do.

Does your compromise allow evangelical institutions fidelity in terms of conviction and behavior in terms of sexual orientation?

For beliefs, certainly.

If someone believes that the heterosexual family is the essential unit for society, we can respect that belief. People are entitled to adhere to whatever belief they hold to be true.

However, the manifestation of such beliefs cannot occur in ways that cause harm to others. It should be fine for the church or other religious authorities to speak about their views. But if such expression is designed to incite hatred, it is a different story.

In terms of practice, institutions are allowed to maintain their main ethos, to propagate it, and to hire people who will do that. However, such exemptions might not extend to all people employed by that institution. The test is if the particular job is essential to the ethos of the community. If not, a right to work matters, as does nondiscrimination in employment.

The state should allow the institution to protect its ethos, but how far the protection goes varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

When you presented your vision at the beginning of your mandate, you tried to quantify your work. At that time, only 2.5 percent of recommendations submitted at the Universal Periodic Review concerned issues of freedom of religion or belief. Have you been able to measure the change during your mandate?

There hasn’t been much change.

The number of states who take up the issue has increased. But the actual proportion of recommendations has slightly declined to 2.4 percent over the past three years. That’s not good, and I’m not sure what more I can do on this.

My September 2021 report will be about implementation of the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. I want to assess how well states have done over the past 40 years in implementing that declaration.

Many nations have excellent rhetoric on religious freedom, but where have nations actually begun to improve their record?

Human rights work is like dropping water on a stone. Given enough time, it will eventually break it down. We are up against huge odds, but we can make inroads.

In terms of laws changing, apart from Sudan [reported by CT here, here, and here], Uzbekistan, and Tunisia, there really hasn’t been that much success. There has been a move to ease or abolish blasphemy laws in the global North, including Ireland, Denmark, Malta, and Greece. But they have been tightened elsewhere, such as Nepal, India, and half of the Middle East.

On the positive side, my recommendation for states to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition on anti-Semitism has been accepted by many countries, including Sweden, Greece, and Uruguay.

Focusing on Iran, in its last UPR there were two other nations who for the first time specifically mentioned the term “Christian converts.” The international community is very concerned about human rights, but why does it not focus more on the issue of apostasy and other issues of freedom of religion and belief?

In my reporting on Iran, I consistently raised concern about this.

Iran says it tolerates the Christian communities who have been there for a long time, but it does not accept new communities. This approach amounts to a violation of human rights.

Around 90 percent of the time I work on a case, Iran takes a step back and something positive happens. Not everything is public, but when we push, it helps the person in question. I don’t mean they get released from prison, but they are afforded more safety.

Later on, when people have been released, they told me there was a change in behavior. Sometimes it was only temporary, but it did have an effect.

States may act as if they don’t really care what you say, but in fact they do. It begins an internal review. When the UN takes up a case, the people involved are better protected.

Some advocates believe that you can address other human rights, and not have to take on religious issues directly.

I don’t agree with this, but some say that rather than calling out the blasphemy law, they can achieve the same end by calling for more respect for freedom of expression.

Another example is with women’s rights, which are frequently brought up in the UPR. Many violations are connected to religion and culture, so advocates say this is a path of least resistance.

But in my view, some issues require a direct focus.

Anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws invoke religion either as the basis for those laws, or as an excuse for them. Without engaging with rights related to religious freedom, we cannot adequately address these issues.

Religious scholars in the Muslim world have produced very commendable documents about tolerance and combatting terrorism. But these documents have not yet been translated into law. How should the UN help nations continue to take steps to implement them, and eventually secure the right to religious conversion?

These declarations do reflect progress and an attempt to address challenges. But they have not been followed up with practical steps.

It is possible they were efforts in what can be called religious freedom diplomacy—aspirational, but with serious blocks against their application domestically.

While I welcome these initiatives, the method of developing them matters. The more inclusive they are, the better the chance they have in implementation.

The UN’s Faith for Rights initiative is one I often mention, and it is getting cited in important documents. The UN’s high commissioner for human rights has recommended it. I believe some Gulf institutions have been quoting it, and this is a good step.

But legal changes will likely only come much later.

First the public needs to understand what it means for everyone, and without that there will be pushback. To move forward, the legal community must also be engaged, along with parliamentarians and judges. National human rights institutions have to come on board. UNESCO could offer support through its work on education, for a long-term change in perspective.

But there is no quick fix.

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