The EU needs to show real commitment to religious freedom

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Believers take part in a traditional Corpus Christi procession in Warsaw, Poland, 20 June 2019. [EPA-EFE/MARCIN OBARA POLAND OUT]

The European Union introduced its Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief six years ago. But has the EU really backed them up with concrete action, asks Adina Portaru.

Adina Portaru is the legal counsel for ADF International in Brussels

24 June marked the sixth anniversary of the adoption of the EU Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief. This significant document seeks to ensure better protection for people of all faiths and none outside the EU.

The Guidelines were hailed as a landmark commitment. But has freedom of religion or belief really improved in the last six years? Were the EU Guidelines instrumental in producing any positive change?

The simple answer to these crucial questions is that we do not know. Despite the EU’s commitment to evaluate progress three years after the adoption of the Guidelines, the Working Party on Human Rights in the Council has not produced any publicly available document doing that.

On the other hand, the international media has consistently brought to light grave violations to this fundamental human right, whether it be prisoners of conscience in Turkey or Russia, Pakistani Christians condemned to death because of blasphemy laws, or the plight of Chinese Uyghurs, to mention just a few.

What are EU Guidelines?

Guidelines are human rights commitments that the EU undertakes to mainstream, largely in its external action. The priority areas developed by the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief include the promotion of respect for diversity and tolerance, supporting human rights defenders, challenging discrimination, and safeguarding the right change or leave one’s religion or belief.

When the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief were adopted, they were welcomed by religious, secular and agnostic groups alike. The International Humanist and Ethical Union spoke positively about the way the Guidelines protect free speech.

The European Evangelical Alliance applauded the EU’s ‘major step’, stating that ‘promoting freedom of religion is not only a moral or legal obligation, but also a strategic political choice.’

The EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief mention in clear terms, in paragraph 70, that the Working Party on Human Rights in the Council will evaluate the implementation after a period of three years, based on the reports of the Heads of Mission and after consulting with civil society and academics.

The consultation should involve churches and religious associations, as well as philosophical and non-confessional organisations.

Additionally, commitments to implement the Guidelines are found in other EU documents, such as the second Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy and the mid-term review of the second Action Plan. It seems however that such promises are not matched by concrete actions.

And it is not just civil society that has criticized this inertia. Institutional and political actors alike have consistently shown dissatisfaction with the lack of transparency and clarity with which the Guidelines have been implemented.

In January 2019, the European Parliament observed that no public implementation report exists and asked ‘for the evaluation to be made public without delay’. It also called for ‘progress reports’ on the implementation of the Guidelines to be communicated to the Parliament and Council, and for them to be included in EU Annual Reports on Human Rights and Democracy in the World.

Members of the European Parliament, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed and the Special Envoy for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU, Jan Figel, have all argued that the promotion of freedom of religion or belief must be stepped up.

The EU needs to make good on its commitments

While it would be inaccurate to say that the EU has not made any progress in the area of freedom of religion or belief, the absence of any evaluation makes it difficult to speak in more specific terms. Moreover, it is important for the process to be one which is open, transparent and inclusive.

For example, the creation – in May 2016 – of the position of the Special Envoy for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU sent a clear message that the EU is committed to protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief in its external action.

The creation of the position – much like the adoption of the Guidelines – was a good start. But, it too needs to be maximised through proper follow-up. The Special Envoy is subject to both temporal and budgetary constraints.

For example, he acts as a ‘special adviser’ to the Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, thus having a fragile position.

His mandate lasts only one year (renewable), which makes strategic planning and concrete impact very difficult.

Further complicating matters, the EU institutions and bodies dealing with freedom of religion or belief suffer from an acutely dysfunctional relationship.

For example, since the Special Envoy has the mandate to promote and strengthen freedom of religion or belief in the external action of the EU, he should have an active role in the process of supervising and implementing the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

His regular field trips and diplomatic encounters in countries with severe freedom of religion or belief violations, such as India, Pakistan, Myanmar, should provide a natural channel for feeding back concrete information on the implementation of the EU Guidelines.

Similarly, this work should also be disseminated to the European Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance which produces annual reports focusing on the very same topic: freedom of religion or belief outside the EU.

The reality is sadly a long way from that picture of intra- and inter-organisational efficiency. Despite these expectations of cooperation, neither the Special Envoy nor the European Parliament Intergroup has consolidated any report on the implementation of the Guidelines.

It is now time for these deficiencies to be remedied. The EU is in process of drafting the third EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024). Taking note of the ever increasing challenges to freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, it should contain a strong call for the strengthening of the mandate of the Special Envoy and the full implementation – and reporting on – the Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

By so doing, the EU will show true commitment to this fundamental human right. The sixth anniversary of the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief presents an opportunity for the EU to demonstrate that the adoption of the Guidelines and the creation of the Special Envoy were not simply tokenistic but robust mechanisms intended to secure a measurable improvement for those suffering for what they believe.

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