International framework for Combatting intolerance and discrimination on basis of religion or belief

International framework for Combatting intolerance and discrimination on basis of religion or belief

The rising intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination on basis of religion or belief has raised alarms around the world. The use of extremist ideology by far right political parties in democratic and developed countries is of serious concern. It has resulted in increasing hate speech and resultant hate crimes against people on the basis of religion or belief. It has also eroded the universal values of tolerance, existence, respect for each others belief and values and will pose a challenge to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and realisation of the slogan of ‘leaving no one behind’

Although there isn’t an umbrella international framework for combatting intolerance on the basis of religion or belief, however, the UN Charter, UN Declaration of Human Rights, Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and various international processes address the issue. The States, international organizations, civil society, religious leaders, media and stakeholders must support these process. There is a need for better information sharing and dissemination along with proper followup on the commitments of the States. The most important current efforts at the United Nations on the topic include:

United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech

Realizing the urgent need to address the recent surge in xenophobia, racism, intolerance, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred around the world amid stalled inter-governmental efforts, the UN Secretary-General launched the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech on 18 June 2019.

The Strategy and Plan of Action consists of 13 commitments for action by the United Nations system and is grounded on four key principles:

  1. The strategy and its implementation to be in line with the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The United Nations supports more speech, not less, as the key means to address hate speech;
  2. Tackling hate speech is the responsibility of all – governments, societies, the private sector, starting with individual women and men. All are responsible, all must act;
  3. In the digital age, the United Nations should support a new generation of digital citizens, empowered to recognize, reject and stand up to hate speech;
  4. We need to know more to act effectively – this calls for coordinated data collection and research, including on the root causes, drivers and conditions conducive to hate speech. It also includes ways the UN Secretariat can support the work of the Resident Coordinators in addressing and countering hate speech.

HRC Resolution 16/18 on “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence, and Violence against Persons based on Religion or Belief

At the 16th HRC session in March 2011, Pakistan, on behalf of OIC, tabled a resolution on the question of defamation of religions. After a lengthy and difficult negotiation process, HRC resolution 16/18 was adopted by the Council through consensus on 24 March 2011. The same text was also adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in its resolution 66/167 of 2011.

The main components of the 16/18 Action Plan are as follows:

  1. Encouraging the creation of collaborative networks to build mutual understanding, promoting dialogue and inspiring constructive action towards shared policy goals and the pursuit of tangible outcomes, such as servicing projects in the fields of education, health, conflict prevention, employment, integration and media education;
  2. Creating an appropriate mechanism within Governments to, inter alia, identify and address potential areas of tension between members of different religious communities, and assisting with conflict prevention and mediation;
  3. Encouraging the training of government officials in effective outreach strategies;
  4. Encouraging the efforts of leaders to discuss within their communities the causes of discrimination, and evolving strategies to counter these causes;
  5. Speaking out against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence;
  6. Adopting measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief;
  7. Understanding the need to combat denigration and negative religious stereotyping of persons, as well as incitement to religious hatred, by strategizing and harmonizing actions at the local, national, region and international levels through, inter alia, education and awareness-building; and
  8. Recognizing that the open, constructive and respectful debate of ideas, as well as interfaith and intercultural dialogue at the local, national and international levels, can play a positive role in combating religious hatred, incitement and violence.

Istanbul Process is the practical implementation framework of resolution 16/18. Uptill now 7 rounds of Istanbul Process meetings have taken place. The 8th Istanbul Process meeting is to be held in Islamabad.

EU’s resolution on Freedom of Religion or Belief

EU’s resolutions on freedom of religion or belief is adopted both Geneva and New York. Its salient points are:

  1. To review and ensure that constitutional and legislative systems provide adequate and effective guarantees of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief to all, without distinction
  2. To ensure that no one within State’s jurisdiction is deprived of the right to life, liberty or security of person because of religion or belief
  3. To ensure that no one is discriminated against on the basis of his or her religion or belief in their access to, inter alia, education, medical care, employment, humanitarian assistance or social benefits
  4. To ensure that no official documents are withheld from the individual on the grounds of religion or belief, and that everyone has the right to refrain from disclosing information concerning their religious affiliation in such documents against their will;
  5. To ensure in particular the right of all individuals to worship, assemble or teach in connection with a religion or belief and their right to establish and maintain places for these purposes, and the right of all individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas in these areas
  6. To ensure that all public officials and civil servants, do not discriminate for reasons based on religion or belief
  7. To prevent any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on religion or belief that impairs the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis, and to detect signs of intolerance that may lead to discrimination based on religion or belief;

Rabat Plan of Action

Rabat Plan of Action is the outcome of a four year initiative by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to clarify the scope of state obligations under Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), prohibiting incitement to violence, hostility and discrimination.  The Plan, which brought together conclusions and recommendations from the expert workshops, was adopted in the wrap-up meeting held in 2012 in Rabat. 

Following are the Plan’s main findings and recommendations:

  1.  States should be guided by express references to Article 20(2) of ICCPR in their domestic legislation, which should include robust definitions of key terms like hatred, discrimination, violence and hostility;
  2. A high legal threshold should be set for application of Article 20 of ICCPR which envisages restrictions on freedom of expression as a criminal offence;
  3. States should repeal defamation of religion laws because these laws are fundamentally incompatible with the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion;
  4. States should consider creating equality bodies or enhance this function within national human rights institutions with enlarged competencies in the field of fostering social dialogue but also in relation to accepting complaints about incidents of incitement to hatred;
  5. An independent judiciary should ensure consistent interpretation of incitement to hatred cases;
  6. Criminal sanctions should be applied only in most severe cases and States should apply a broad set of measures to sanction and prevent incitement to hatred.  These include policies that promote intercultural dialogue; pluralism and diversity; and positive measures for the protection of minorities and vulnerable groups;
  7. An independent and pluralistic media plays a vital role in combating discrimination and promoting intercultural understandings; and
  8. Strengthening the UN special procedures mechanisms and the international expert mechanisms that work on this area through provision of adequate resources and enhanced collaboration.

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