United Nations’ Focus on Freedom of Religion or Belief

U.N. Human Rights Council
U.N. Human Rights Council

 

The United Nations’ Human Rights Council [1] 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

II. Discrimination

  • Discrimination on the basis of religion or belief/inter-religious discrimination/tolerance
  • State religion

III. Vulnerable groups

  • Women
  • Persons deprived of their liberty
  • Refugees
  • Children
  • Minorities
  • 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

  • Derogation
  • Limitation
  • 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.

Heiner Bielefeldt
Heiner Bielefeldt

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).[2]

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[1] The U.N. Human Rights Council was the subject of an earlier post.

[2] 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.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council

The U.N. Human Rights Council was created in 2006 by the U.N. General Assembly. It is “responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner.” To that end, it is also responsible for addressing “situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations” and making “recommendations on them.” The Council is guided by “the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation, with a view to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.”

To fulfill its mission, the Council has adopted at least four procedures or mechanisms.

One set of procedures is known as “Special Procedures,” which include special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts and working groups that monitor, examine, advise and publicly report on thematic issues or human rights situations in specific countries. One example is the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers that was discussed in a prior post.

Another is a Complaint Procedure, which allow individuals and organizations to bring human rights violations to the attention of the Council.

Yet another is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism which serves to assess the human rights situations in all 193 U.N. members. (The UPR process will be reviewed in a subsequent post about the Council’s UPR of the U.S.)

The Council also has established an Advisory Committee, which serves as the Council’s “think tank” providing it with expertise and advice on thematic human rights issues. In February 2012 this Committee adopted recommendations to the Council regarding (1) the rights of peasants, (2) the right to food, (3) human rights and international solidarity, (4) the right of peoples to peace, (5) terrorist hostage-taking, (6) promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms through traditional values of humankind, and (7) enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights.

In May 2011, pursuant to the General Assembly resolution establishing the Council, a special working group reported on its review of the Council’s first five years. The report made modest proposed changes to the Council’s procedures and mechanisms. The U.S. expressed its disappointment in the report, with the U.S. stating the report resulted from “a process designed to be a race to the bottom.” According to the U.S., there needed to be “greater scrutiny of the human rights record of countries that offer themselves for election to the Council” and enhancement of the Council’s ability to take on country situations in a variety of formats, not limited to resolutions. Moreover, said the U.S., the Council’s most egregious flaw was its criticism of only one country, Israel.

The Council, whose office and meetings are in Geneva, Switzerland, has 47 member states that are chosen from U.N. member states for three-year terms by the U.N. General Assembly. (From 2006 through 2008 the U.S. in the George W. Bush Administration did not participate in the Council’s activities. Since then, however, the Obama Administration has done so, and the U.S. was elected to the Council in 2009 for a term ending at the end of 2012.)

The Council replaced the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that was established by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in 1946. The Commission’s first major task, under the Chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt, was the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. During its first 20 years the Commission focused on establishing international human rights standards in various multilateral treaties. The Commission eventually had similar responsibilities and functions as the Council, but became subject to severe criticism for being too friendly with regimes that were violators of human rights.

Alleged Improper Interference with Spanish Judicial Process by U.S. and Spanish Officials

As mentioned in a prior post, on January 19, 2012, two human rights organizations–the Center for Constitutional Rights of New York City and Berlin’s European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights--alleged that U.S. and Spanish senior governmental officials improperly have attempted to interfere with the Spanish judges handling three criminal cases against U.S. officials. These allegations were in a complaint the organizations filed with the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

Now we examine the specifics of these allegations. Afterwards  we will take a quick look at the role and function of the Special Rapporteur to understand the context in which these accusations are being made.

The Allegations

The complaint to the Special Rapporteur alleges that U.S. officials have breached the right to an independent and impartial judiciary by interfering with the exclusive authority of the Spanish judiciary to determine these cases without restrictions, improper influences, pressures, threats or interference. These actions by U.S. officials allegedly sought to deprive victims of serious crimes, including torture, of the right to an impartial proceeding and the right to redress.

With respect to Spanish officials, it is alleged that they improperly cooperated with the U.S. officials and that the Spanish prosecutors breached their legal duty to act fairly and impartially.

The factual basis for these allegations is a collection of 28 U.S. diplomatic cables from the period July 2004 through May 2009 that subsequently were put into the public record by WikiLeaks. The following, I believe, fairly summarizes the complaint’s account of these cables:

  • The U.S. officials who were involved in these communications were the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, two Republican U.S. Senators (Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Mel Martinez of Florida) and U.S. diplomatic staff in Spain.
  • The Spanish officials who were so involved held various positions in the government’s executive branch, including the Vice President, the Foreign Minister, the Attorney General and the Chief Prosecutor along with lower-level people in the Spanish government.
  • Very significantly, in my opinion, there is no mention in the complaint of U.S. or Spanish officials’ allegedly communicating directly with the Spanish judges who were involved in these three cases in any way. There is no allegation that the U.S. or Spain threatened the judges or tried to bribe them to halt the cases. Nor is there any claim that the Spanish officials had improper and ex parte communications with the judges.
  • In many of these communications, the Spanish officials stressed that the Spanish judiciary was independent of the government, and I think that the previous summaries of these three cases demonstrates that independence. The complaint to the Special Rapporteur, however, argues, in my opinion, that these Spanish statements show that all participants were aware that their communications were improper. I do not find this argument persuasive.
  • The substance of the communications was the U.S. extreme displeasure with the Spanish courts’ processing these cases and the potential adverse consequences for the overall U.S.-Spain relationship from continuation of the cases. The U.S. kept pressing the Spanish officials to try to stop these cases, but the consistent Spanish response was their inability to control that decision because the courts were independent.
  • Moreover, as we have seen in prior posts, the three cases continue to be processed by the Spanish courts. The cases are not over.

I am not an expert on U.S. or other countries’ diplomatic practices, but these communications are what I would expect to occur when two countries have a problem. Diplomats and other officials for one country express their displeasure with something the other country is doing and try to persuade that other country to change its behavior.

Therefore, although I regard myself as an international human rights advocate and want these cases against U.S. officials to proceed on the merits and although I have great respect for the two human rights organization pressing this complaint, I am not persuaded there was improper conduct by the U.S. or Spain as alleged in the complaint. Here especially I invite comments indicating I may have missed or misinterpreted some of these diplomatic cables or their significance for this complaint to the Special Rapporteur.

In a subsequent post I will discuss the Spanish criminal charges now pending against Judge Baltasar Garzon, who was a judge in two of these cases against U.S. officials and whether the charges against the Judge are related to the alleged U.S. and Spanish improper attempts to interfere with the Spanish judiciary.

The Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers

In 1994 the U.N. Commission on Human Rights created this position after it noted “the increasing frequency of attacks on the independence of judges, lawyers and court officials and the link which exists between the weakening of safeguards for the judiciary and lawyers and the gravity and frequency of violations of human rights.” The initial period for this position was three years, but it has been extended by the Commission and since 2006 by its successor, the U.N. Human Rights Council.

This Special Rapporteur, among other duties, is required to “inquire into any substantial allegations transmitted to him or her and to report his or her conclusions and recommendations thereon.”

This Special Rapporteur is one example of the 33 thematic mandates of the Human Rights Council. They constitute one way that the Council seeks “to examine, monitor, advise and publicly report on . . .  major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide.”

The term “rapporteur,” by the way,  is a French term that is used in international and European legal and political contexts to refer to a person appointed by a deliberative body to investigate an issue or a situation.

Conclusion

The complaint to the Special Rapporteur and the Spanish criminal cases against U.S. officials and against Judge Garzon are important unfinished matters. We all should make special efforts to stay abreast of further developments, especially since the U.S. media does not provide persistent coverage of these matters.