Freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is a fundamental human right. However, the general global
the trend in recent years is towards increased FoRB violations by both government and non-government actors. Notable exceptions are Sudan and Uzbekistan, which have shown significant improvement in promoting FoRB, while smaller-scale positive developments have been seen in a number of other countries. The international community is increasingly focusing on FoRB. External actors can help promote FoRB through monitoring and reporting, applying external pressure on governments (and to a lesser extent non-government entities), and through constructive engagement with both government and non-government actors. The literature gives recommendations for how each of these approaches can be effectively applied.
This review is largely based on grey (and some academic) literature as well as recent media reports. The evidence base was limited by the fact that so few countries have shown FoRB improvements, but there was wider literature on the role that external actors can play. The available literature was often gender blind (typically only referring to women and girls in relation to FoRB violations) and made negligible reference to persons with disabilities.
Freedom of religion or belief (FRB) is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) drafted in 1948. Article 18 states (cited in Toft & Green, 2018: 4):
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes
freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with
others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice,
worship and observance.
Key findings of the review are as follows:
- Globally, the overall trend in relation to FoRB is predominantly negative, with some countries
– notably India – showing significant deterioration. Major improvements were found only in
Sudan and Uzbekistan, which were both upgraded from the USCIRF’s1 countries of particular concern (CPCs) to the less serious special watch list (SWL).
- Sudan had a highly restrictive interpretation of Islamic law under former ruler Omar alBashir. Following his removal from power, a new draft constitutional charter protects FoRB, and the transitional government has ended the worst forms of persecution against the country’s minority Christian population. In later reforms, the crime of apostasy2 was abolished, and Islam removed as the state religion. The improvement in FoRB appears to stem from the change in government, and a desire to reintegrate internationally.
- Uzbekistan had severe restrictions on FoRB under President Karimov, but his death in 2016 led to former PM Mirziyoyev taking power and the introduction of various reforms, e.g. printing and distributing bibles in the Uzbek language, allowing Friday prayers for civil servants, embracing religious education, the release of religious prisoners, and engagement with the UN and international community on FoRB. The reforms seem to be driven by the new leader’s desire to gain domestic legitimacy, improve the country’s international image and attract foreign investors, so as to promote economic growth.
- There have been smaller-scale positive developments with regard to FoRB in a number of other countries, e.g. repeal of anti-Ahmedi legislation in Bangladesh, provisions for official registration of Christian and Hindu marriages in Pakistan, and decline in Al-Shabaab extremist violence in Tanzania and Kenya.
- There is evidence of greater awareness of and increased focus on FoRB by the international community, e.g. the rise in special envoys for FoRB, and designation of 27 October as international FoRB day. Reasons for this include both the global rise in FoRB violations, and growing awareness of the importance of FoRB.
- External actors can play a number of roles to promote FoRB: monitoring and reporting on the situation with regard to FoRB in different countries; applying external diplomatic and political, economic and even military pressure to bring about FoRB; and engagement with government and non-government actors to promote FoRB.
- Monitoring and reporting in relation to FoRB, using primary sources, is carried out both by entities looking at all groups in society, e.g. USCIRF, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and those focusing on specific groups, e.g. Humanists International and Open Doors (Christians). Others use mainly secondary sources, e.g. Pew Research Centre. FoRB monitoring and reporting can create pressure for reform (‘name and shame’), and also helps to formulate effective responses and interventions. USCIRF reporting has more ‘teeth’ in that the US President must take punitive measures against countries of particular concern (CPCs).
- External pressure is primarily aimed at changing government decision-making and actions in target countries. Parliamentarians are in a good position to highlight FoRB violations, defend rights activists, and advocate for FoRB. It is important to apply pressure where it matters, and that those applying pressure be seen as legitimate actors by the population, and that pressure be consistent and sustained.
- External pressure is less effective against non-state actors such as local communities using hate speech and engaging in violence. But it could be used to promote change in influential non-state entities, e.g. banks/financial institutions managing funds of radical groups, or social media companies whose platforms are used to spread hate messages.
- Constructive engagement (based on building long-term relationships and gradual persuasion) with government officials and entities can be an effective alternative to pressure. Modalities can include dialogues, technical assistance on legislation, and training of officials, carried out by governments, multilateral organisations as well as international/national NGOs. Some general conditions for success of engagement approaches are: establishing trust and long-term commitment, identifying and engaging with relevant change agents and with relevant individuals within those agencies, and being wary of the risk of embeddedness (becoming associated with/legitimizing a violating government).
- Constructive engagement and cooperation is the more common approach taken with nongovernment entities to change broader societal intolerance and hostility. Mainly carried out
by funding projects implemented by NGOs, key examples are interfaith dialogue and activities. It is important to take care in use of language (adapting this to local contexts), build broad alliances and promote FoRB for all rather than one particular group, and ensure continuous and long-term support.