Renewing and boosting the post of EU Special Envoy for freedom of religion or belief outside the Union would be a crucial step towards addressing many of the challenges we’re facing today, both at home and abroad. It would send a welcome message during the festive season and while we mark International Human Rights Day, argues Miriam Lexmann.
Miriam Lexmann is a Slovakian member of the European Parliament and a member of the Foreign Affairs (AFET) Committee
Freedom of religion and belief is in peril across the world. From the Xinjiang region of China to Syria, freedom of religion and belief continues to be under constant severe threat, be it from Islamist fundamentalists, the Chinese Communist Party and other authoritarian regimes across the globe, or from the far-Left and far-Right of the political spectrum. Across mainland China, the Chinese Communist Party is destroying churches and other symbols of worship. In Xinjiang, it has placed millions of Uyghurs into concentration camps, engaging in forced labour, and forced sterilisation of Uyghur women. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism continues to see a worrying rise and, according to a 2019 commissioned report for the UK Foreign Office, the persecution of Christians globally has reached ‘genocidal’ levels. What can be done to turn this disturbing trend?
First, supporting freedom of religion and belief and by that, religious tolerance, is key to addressing many of the challenges we’re facing today. It is also why, together with other colleagues from the European Parliament, we have called on the European Commission to renew the post of the EU Special Envoy for the Freedom of Religion and Belief and to do it now. This is a straightforward political choice, that could be done in an instant and would send a very powerful message that the EU cares for freedom of religion and belief. By refusing to renew the mandate, the EU sends the very opposite message to its citizens and to the world.
1 December marked the first anniversary since the EU has not had a Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. The position was established in 2016 and held by former European Commissioner Ján Figel’ until November 2019, who in this position served as an advisor to the Commissioner for International Development and Cooperation, with no staff and resources, and holding a 12-month extendable mandate. Under Figel’s leadership, a number of successful initiatives took place, including the release of Asia Bibi after nine years of imprisonment, a Catholic mother of five who, without any evidence, was accused of blasphemy in Pakistan and sentenced to death by hanging.
When President Von der Leyen took over the Presidency of the Commission in January 2020, the position of Special Envoy was not renewed, and the Commission remaining largely silent on the issue for over 6 months. On 8 July, Vice-President Margaritis Schinas announced that the European Commission decided to renew the mandate of the Special Envoy. However, at a time of writing, there has been no appointment made by the Commission. Meanwhile thousands of people around the world are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.
This delay has prompted my colleagues and I in the European Parliament to issue a statement addressed to President Ursula von der Leyen and Vice-President Schinas to call for the prompt appointment of the Special Envoy, with a multi-year mandate and support by adequate staff and resources. Our stance is reflective of what the European Parliament and other EU institutions have called for over many years.
The mandate of the EU Special Envoy was called for in the 2013 EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief. In 2016, appalled by the genocide carried out by ISIS in the Middle East and targeting Christians, Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities, the European Parliament called for the ‘EU to establish a permanent Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief’ in paragraph 10 of its Resolution of 4 February 2016 on the systematic mass murder of religious minorities by the so-called ‘ISIS/Daesh’. Despite this, and the renewed commitment in the Report on EU Guidelines and the mandate of the EU Special Envoy, adopted by the European Parliament on 16 January 2019 with overwhelming support the mandate of the Special Envoy has not been strengthened.
This is a worrying signal which should be taken very seriously. The global challenges are not disappearing, and any further delay in the appointment process would severely erode the progress made by the Special Envoy in his three year term.
In the context of the current pandemic, attacks on people of all faiths and none has intensified around the world. Anti-coronavirus measures are used as a smokescreen to target religious and ethnic minorities, be it Christians, Yazidis, Rohingya or Uyghur Muslims. Additionally, countless prisoners of conscience are jailed in appalling circumstances across many authoritarian countries, where they are extremely vulnerable to diseases, including, COVID-19. Moreover, persecution based on religion and belief is contributing to the migration crisis and related security challenges which threaten the EU, as hundreds of thousands of people are uprooted because of continued attacks, even genocides, perpetrated against them.
The EU must stand strong and united and respond to the attacks on peoples’ lives, consciences and religion or belief. With a strong Envoy, as called for by my colleagues in the European Parliament, and by other national special envoys, scholars, and civil society, the EU ought to have a leadership in the international response to protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief worldwide. This is one crucial step that can be decided quickly. It would send a welcome message during the festive season and while we mark International Human Rights Day.
As set out in our open letter, ‘The appointment of a Special Envoy holding a permanent mandate focused primarily on freedom of religion or belief, with a multi-year term, full-time staff, and increased funding would send out the message that the EU is committed to protecting everywhere the victims of violence and persecution because of their religion or belief.‘ The EU’s leadership in defending freedom of religion or belief is fundamental in addressing many of the challenges facing us today. The current pandemic and its consequences do not merely make our leadership more pressing – it makes it absolutely necessary.