The United Nations’ Human Rights Council  has a Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. This official’s mandate is the following:
- “to promote the adoption of measures at the national, regional and international levels to ensure the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief;
- to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles;
- to continue her/his efforts to examine incidents and governmental actions that are incompatible with the provisions of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and to recommend remedial measures as appropriate; and
- to continue to apply a gender perspective, inter alia, through the identification of gender-specific abuses, in the reporting process, including in information collection and in recommendations.”
In order to fulfill this mandate, the Special Rapporteur transmits urgent appeals and letters of allegation to States with regard to cases that represent infringements of, or impediments to, the exercise of the right to freedom of religion and belief; undertakes fact-finding country visits; and submits annual reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly, on the activities, trends and methods of work.
This official also has issued the “Rapporteur’s Digest on freedom of religion or belief,” which includes excerpts of its reports from 1986 to 2011. The following is its table of contents:
I. Freedom of religion or belief
- Freedom to adopt, change or renounce a religion or belief
- Freedom from coercion
- The right to manifest one’s religion or belief
- a. Freedom to worship
- b. Places of worship
- c. Religious symbols
- d. Observance of holidays and days of rest
- e. Appointing clergy
- f. Teaching and disseminating materials (including missionary activity)
- g. The right of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children
- h. Registration
- i. Communicate with individuals and communities on religious matters at the national and international level
- j. Establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions/solicit and receive funding
- k. Conscientious objection
- Discrimination on the basis of religion or belief/inter-religious discrimination/tolerance
- State religion
III. Vulnerable groups
- Persons deprived of their liberty
- Migrant workers
IV. Intersection of freedom of religion or belief with other human rights
- Freedom of expression including questions related to religious conflicts, religious intolerance and extremism
- Right to life, right to liberty
- Prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
V. Cross-cutting issues
- Legislative issues
- Defenders of freedom of religion or belief and non-governmental organizations
This position was created in 1986 by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and in 2013 was continued by the Commission’s successor, the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The current Special Rapporteur is Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt, the Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. From 2003 to 2009, he was the Director of Germany’s National Human Rights Institution. Mr. Bielefeldt’s research interests include various interdisciplinary facets of human rights theory and practice, with a focus on freedom of religion or belief.
Last month (July 2014) the Special Rapporteur completed a visit to Vietnam and issued a statement about his visit. He said he had heard quite a number of allegations in that country of harassment, house arrests, imprisonment, destruction of houses of worship, beatings and pressuring people to join official religions and renounce their own. He said he could not make full assessment of individual cases, but concluded “there are serious violations of freedom of religion or belief taking place in this country.” (Assoc. Press, UN Official: Vietnam Violates Religious Freedom, N.Y. Times (July 31, 2014).
 The U.N. Human Rights Council was the subject of an earlier post.
 The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recent report designated Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) or one that has engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. The Commission also recommended that the State Department make the same designation, but the Department’s recent report did not do so even though it said, “Many requests by religious groups for registration [in Vietnam] remained unanswered or were denied . . . . Many unregistered religious groups reported abuses, with a particularly high number of reports coming from the Central and Northwest Highlands. These included allegations of beatings, arrests, detentions, and criminal convictions.”