At the 31th UN Human Rights Council: Stressing the importance of the Right of Privacy and Freedom of Religion or Belief

Session of the 09 March 2016.
Two UN Special Rapporteurs were present at this session that covered two fields:
Joseph Cannatacithe on the right of privacy
Heiner Bielefeldt on the freedom of religion or belief


Remarks from Special Rapporteurs:

Introduction of Joseph Cannatacithe: The right of privacy

The Special Rapporteur on the Right of Privacy stresses out the fact that his task is immense, and that privacy is a crucial point as it is at the forefront of the international stage this year. Being able to blend all perspectives and cultural backgrounds together while maintaining the core of the right of privacy is a necessity.  He presents his 10-point action plan for the next few years, which tackles issues as varied as open and big data and biometrics.  
He deeply regrets the fact that there is no binding definition of privacy which would be globally accepted and agreed on. There is a real difficulty in defining a notion like privacy which is not understood in the same way by all countries: as it is, it could be best defined in the form of a negative definition, that is to say what it is not.

Introduction of Heiner Bielefeldt: freedom of religion or belief

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief states that, in a holistic understanding, freedom of religion it is closely related to freedom of speech. It’s a misunderstanding if people tend to think that the two are opposed. Both of them, in theory and in their conception as well as in reality and in their application strengthen and reinforce each other.
Human beings should be unconditionally protected on the matter of their beliefs and religions: any form of coercion (changing or adopting a religion through force or under threat) should be internationally strictly prohibited at international and national level.
There cannot be any limitations on the freedom of religion or belief, for it can lead very easily and quickly to discriminations.

The Special Rapporteur has also officially visited Lebanon and Bangladesh and has remarks on both of these countries

Lebanon is a unique religious landscape in an unstable region that is currently under the threat of religious-based violence. In the country coexist freely minorities such as atheists, agnostics, Buddhists…Diversity is indeed perceived as something that should be protected, all are in theory able to convert of give up their religion freely. It’s a real counterpoint to the sectarian hegemonism of its neighbor’s countries, as there is a real interreligious conviviality. However, there are also challenges: to change one’s religion can lead to social exclusion and even from professional career; civil marriages are not authorized; women remain disadvantaged. There is a strong support to refugees, as Lebanon is a big host country, but also a lack of transparency on the matter, which the Rapporteur regrets. On this issue, Lebanon asks the Special Rapporteur to take into account the difficulty of the country’s situation, as it is hosting refugees since the beginning of the Syrian crisis with limited capacities.

Bangladesh contains a vast majority of Muslims who nevertheless live with other religions. Secularism is included in the Constitution. However, there also some issues and contradictions with the implementation of this secularism: indeed, Islam is still a state religion. The Rapporteur also regrets the fact that some growing restrictive measures against some religious minorities lead them to having less public space.


Remarks from countries and NGOs:

Nearly all countries members of this Council concur with the two reports and the correlation between freedom of religion and freedom of speech, though some of them, such as Saudi Arabia and Lybia, express their disagreement.

The issue of a legislation on blasphemy

Indeed, Libya wants the report on freedom of religion to assess the case of “immoral behavior” and how freedom of speech, if not limited by strict regulations, can be used to denigrate God, and justify hate speeches and blasphemy. Doesn’t agree that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are related. Saudi Arabia concurs, criticizing the fact that the report of Heiner Bielefeldt strongly calls for the end of all blasphemy laws. Instead, it advocates for blasphemy crimes to be punished on an international level so as to protect Muslims against hate speeches that do not respect their religion and to protect their religion from physical and mainly verbal attacks.

The NGO British Humanist Association considers that blasphemy laws are incompatible with human rights and reminds the Council that 55 states outlaw blasphemy: in six of them (some of them being members of this Council), it is even punishable by the death penalty, which is not acceptable. The NGO International Fellowship Program states that, contrary to what Saudi Arabia claimed, religions should not be protected from defamations as institutions do not have human rights. If they claim so, then they’re themselves infringing upon human rights of actual human beings. 

The answer and conclusion of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief  

The Special Rapporteur states that blasphemy laws have zero justification and space in today’s world. Restrictive measures only worsen the problem and imagination is needed instead.
Before talking of implementing any kind of Resolution from this Council concerning freedom of religion, the Council should start acknowledging the reality:  top-down policies are not the best way to go and inspiration should be taken from bottom-up approaches, that is to say at the local level: according to of Heiner Bielefeldt, that’s the real “Umbrella” function of the United Nations, rather than starting new policies at an international level which are more prone to fail.

Concerning limitations causes and how governments should deal with them, that is to say deciding whether or not there are limitations to freedom of religion and speech, the Special Rapporteur is adamant: freedom does have a limitation indeed, but there is always the word “only” when introducing this limitation: it is not a matter of “balancing” freedom and limitations, as one often hears, but rather a matter of “rule and exception”. Stating otherwise (the notion of freedom is different for every country, for instance) is introducing and leaving the door open to relativism, which is not acceptable in human rights issues. These limitations upon freedom of religion and speech need to be thoroughly justified and not the other way around.

The Special Rapporteur ends his statement by trying to define the media’s role in maintaining and promoting freedom of religion and speech: they are crucial as they’re able to tackle negative stereotypes, but they should not by replace them with positive stereotypes or any kind of marketing strategy, easily discernable and which can be seen as a bit manipulative, but by enabling common sense, understanding, meetings between people and religious communities.