6 March 2013
The Human Rights Council this morning concluded its clustered interactive dialogue with the Chair of the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
At the beginning of the meeting, Alexandre Fasel, Vice President of the Human Rights Council, expressed his condolences to the family of Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, who passed away on Tuesday evening. The Council held one minute of silence. Many delegations offered their condolences to the Venezuelan delegation.
Olivier De Frouville, Chair of the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances, in concluding remarks said that there was a need for increased financial support for the Working Group to address the backlog of cases. Mr. de Frouville explained the rules governing submission of communications and the procedure followed in case of limited information on cases and also said that the Working Group always supported the inclusion of enforced disappearances as a separate crime in national legislation. Regarding the protection of human rights defenders and people cooperating with the Working Group, there was a need for a more robust mechanism to protect human rights defenders and prevent violations of their rights.
Heiner Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, in concluding remarks said that one should not underestimate the implications of a consistent human rights approach for the understanding and practice of minority rights because it meant moving beyond various traditional concepts of focusing only on predefined groups. The specific structural vulnerability was the entry point. There was a need to move beyond narrow concepts. An inclusive society, as coined in the Durban Declaration, should be created. The Universal Periodic Review provided a wonderful opportunity to always address questions of religious minorities in the appropriate spirit and in the human rights approach.
The two experts presented their reports on Tuesday, 5 March in the afternoon and a summary of their comments can be found here.
In the interactive dialogue, concerning enforced or involuntary disappearances, speakers were worried about the continued practice of enforced disappearances, one of the most serious violations of human rights. It was important to trace the whereabouts of those who had disappeared and had been harmed, not only for their families but also for society as a whole. Some speakers asked how could countries with limited resources allocate adequate reparations when they were facing immense challenges?
On freedom or religion or belief, speakers expressed concerns about the number and gravity of human rights violations against persons of religious minorities and shared the view that there was a need for concerted efforts to address the issue. The acceptance of the religious freedom of other persons and groups was the corner stone of dialogue and collaboration. What were the most effective ways to address the problem of discrimination against religious minorities and what effective steps could be taken by the international community to ensure the protection of their human rights?
Speaking in the interactive dialogue were the Republic of Korea, Venezuela, Czech Republic, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Algeria, Armenia, Ecuador, Thailand, Switzerland, Uruguay, Holy See, Greece, Slovenia, Sudan, Qatar, El Salvador, Netherlands, Norway, Canada, Indonesia, India, Cuba on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries, Bolivia on behalf of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, Bangladesh, Australia, Turkey, Malaysia, Poland, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China, Japan, Slovakia, Libya and Sierra Leone.
The following non-governmental organizations also took the floor: Society for Threatened People, Amnesty International, Jubilee Campaign, International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, International Humanist Ethical Union, International Institute for Peace, International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and European Centre for Law and Justice.
The Human Rights Council in its midday meeting will hold its annual discussion on the rights of persons with disabilities, with a focus on employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.
Interactive Dialogue on Enforced Disappearances and on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Republic of Korea acknowledged the achievements of the Working Group on enforced disappearances and emphasized that the Working Group should work closely with the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. The Working Group had a backlog of more than 900 cases, and the issue of work overload had to be addressed. The Republic of Korea expressed concern at the six newly registered and outstanding cases of abduction of Korean nationals by the authorities of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which were included in the Working Group’s report. The Working Group should call on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to carry out all necessary investigations as a matter of urgency.
Venezuela thanked Mr. Fasel for his condolences, and expressed Venezuela’s solidarity with the people of Cuba who shared the sorrow and pain of the people of Venezuela. Venezuela agreed with the Special Rapporteur that it was up to States to ensure that human rights were protected so that all people could enjoy freedom of religion or belief, irrespective of where they lived. Those freedoms never had an impediment in Venezuela. The incident mentioned in the report was an isolated incident and Venezuela was doing all it could to bring the perpetrators to justice. Venezuela had recently created a Commission of Truth and Justice to investigate crimes committed in the country between 1958 and 1998.
Czech Republic appreciated the elaborations of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, on the conceptual framework of minority protection and agreed on the need for a human rights approach based on universality and equality. To what extent could his proposal to cover atheists and non-believers apply in today’s world? There was a close link between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression and they were mutually dependent and reinforcing. To what extent was respect for freedom of expression important for the promotion and protection of persons belonging to religious or belief minorities?
Sri Lanka said Sri Lanka was appreciative of the continued support received from the Working Group on enforced disappearances with regards to clarifying outstanding issues, which was a testimony of the seriousness with which the Government had considered all allegations of disappearances. Sri Lanka was home to a multi-ethnic and multi-religious community and freedom of religion including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion of choice for every person by way of a fundamental right was enshrined in Article 10 of its Constitution as an entrenched provision.
Sweden said that freedom of religion or belief must have a broad scope of application and should therefore be implemented in an open and inclusive manner, following the universal nature of human rights. Special attention should be given to women from religious or belief minorities, many of whom suffered from multiple or intersectional discrimination. Could the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, share thoughts on what efforts would be most crucial in ensuring the protection of the rights of individuals belonging to religious minorities?
Algeria said that it had recently sent a number of documents to the Working Group to supplement the information in its possession on a number of cases of disappearances in the nineties. At the same time Algeria continued to address the matter of disappearances nationally under its Charter for National Peace and Reconciliation to hasten the healing of wounds. Many of the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief had been noted and were being implemented. Algeria guaranteed freedom of worship and protection of religious association, among others.
Armenia welcomed the commitment of Cyprus to a multi-cultural and non-discriminatory approach to the freedom of religion or belief. The Armenian minority in Cyprus had made its own contribution to the cultural development of the country. Several Armenian religious sites were in the areas under Turkish occupation, and Armenia shared the concerns of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief about the lack of access to, and the deteriorating condition of, sites of cultural heritage in areas outside the control of Cyprus. Urgent measures should be taken for the preservation and restoration of historical churches and monasteries.
Ecuador said that it was important to trace the whereabouts of those who had disappeared and had been harmed, not only for their families but also for society as a whole. Ecuador supported the legal proceedings underway and the investigations which were being carried out into disappearance cases reported in the country. It also highlighted the creation and maintenance of a stable structure within its National Human Rights Unit focusing on cases of enforced disappearance and ensuring that assistance was provided to the victims and their families.
Thailand welcomed the focus of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on reparations and agreed with an inclusive definition of victims as well as a broad application of the concept of reparations. Thailand had been providing monetary compensation and rehabilitation to families of disappeared persons while an investigation into incidents of disappearance was ongoing. The dialogue process in the Southern Border Provinces, which was announced by the Royal Thai Government last week, demonstrated Thailand’s commitment to address the broader context of the situation of enforced disappearances in Thailand.
Switzerland said that Switzerland was concerned about the number and gravity of human rights violations against persons belonging to religious minorities. The right of persons from religious minorities should be seen from the point of view of human rights and implemented alongside all human rights. There was a need for concerted action to protect these persons, based on the principles of universality, freedom and equality. Could the Special Rapporteur explain how an awareness raising programme in this respect could be implemented in real terms?
Uruguay expressed its sincere condolences on behalf of its President, in solidarity with Venezuela and its people. Uruguay was concerned that enforced disappearances still persisted in many countries as a practice. Uruguay welcomed the initiative of the Working Group on enforced disappearances to include a thematic section regarding reparation for victims. Uruguay urged other countries to adhere to the Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Uruguay faced a range of challenges.
Holy See said that the effective protection of the human rights of persons belonging to religious minorities was lacking or inadequately addressed even in the United Nations and international systems. The legal recognition of a minority was the starting point for the necessary harmony between individual and group freedom. A State could preserve religious identity provided it acted with neutrality and justice towards all religious groups in its territory. The acceptance of the religious freedom of other persons and groups was the corner stone of dialogue and collaboration.
Greece said Greece was fully committed to the right to freedom of religion or belief because it had a Muslim minority in Thrace. Greece’s policy in that regard reflected international human rights standards and the values of the European Union. More than 300 mosques, hundreds of Islamic preachers, and two historic Islamic schools operated in the region. A recently adopted law made possible for the first time the teaching of Islam in State schools in Thrace. Moreover, Muslims were more than adequately represented in the local government and the national parliament. Considerable efforts were being made to improve the employment and study opportunities of the Muslim minority of Thrace.
Slovenia said that Slovenia fully agreed with the Special Rapporteur that States should create favourable conditions for persons belonging to religious minorities to ensure that they could preserve and develop their religious community life and identity. How should the Council respond to cases where such favourable conditions had not been created? How could the international community further encourage the creation of such conditions?
Sudan recognized that disappearances were one of the most serious human rights violations which needed to be addressed by all States. Sudan had set up a Committee to investigate all allegations of disappearance cases, and had demonstrated its willingness to fully cooperate with the Working Group to help it fulfil its mandate and clarify all the remaining cases. While the majority of the population of Sudan was Muslim, religious tolerance in the country was evidenced by the presence of churches, various educational and social institutions, and the Religious Coexistence Council which was established as a voluntary independent body.
Qatar said that Qatar was absolutely convinced that everybody was entitled to freedom of religion or faith or conviction without discrimination and regretted that there seemed to be prejudices against some of these, which flew in the face of human rights. Qatar underscored that the Emir of Qatar at the opening of a United Nations seminar had said there was a need for real political and popular will to build a human society that was truly international and based on truly shared values. In Qatar’s experience, diversity was very much something that underpinned its peaceful co-existence.
El Salvador said that it had a new approach vis-à-vis the serious violations committed as part of the past armed conflict in the country and had accepted the responsibility of the State itself during that period. This had been clearly expressed before international protection bodies. The Government of El Salvador had opened up spaces for dialogue and participation with victims and their representatives, with a view to complying with the recommendations stemming from reports and rulings. There was also a law allowing any organization or citizen to investigate the whereabouts of victims of disappearances.
Netherlands asked the Special Rapporteur how he saw the relationship between the promotion and protection of individual rights on the one hand and of communal rights on the other and what effect the strengthening of the focus on the rights of religious minorities had on the position of individuals within religious communities that chose to live without conviction or activity. It was also interested in hearing views on the possible adverse consequences of labelling persons belonging to religious minorities as rights-holders within their respective societies.
Norway said that minority women were particularly vulnerable to abuse and attacks. Norway stressed that many different motives could be found behind violations of the right to freedom or religion or belief, such as fostering national cohesion by targeting minority groups. It was important, therefore, to acknowledge historically sensitive issues and to take measures to tackle them. The complexities inherent in political advocacy should not stop stakeholders from taking appropriate action. Could the Special Rapporteur share examples of best practices in political advocacy?
Canada remained deeply concerned about the situation of religious minorities in several parts of the world where persons could not practise their faith individually or in groups. Canada had made the freedom of religion a key foreign policy priority, because it saw important linkages between freedom of religion and pluralism, stability and democracy. Canada had set up an Office of Religious Freedom to advocate on behalf of religious minorities under threat, to oppose religious hatred and intolerance, and to promote pluralism. Could the Special Rapporteur explain how States could create favourable conditions for persons belonging to religious minorities?
Indonesia said that recurrences of enforced disappearances should be prevented and to that end Indonesia had taken several measures, including the provision of human rights and humanitarian law training, awareness-raising initiatives, and setting up a mechanism to prevent social and religious conflict and violations of international humanitarian law. How could countries with limited resources allocate adequate reparations when they were facing immense challenges? Indonesia had a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society with a tradition of multi-party dialogue and communication. Nevertheless, it was facing challenges in its efforts to promote the freedom of religion.
India said that with India’s tradition of tolerance, it had served as a refuge for groups that had encountered persecution elsewhere. Over the past decades India had put in place the legislative framework and administrative apparatus to implement the provisions of the Constitution and laws and regulations concerning freedom of religion and faith and the protection of religious minorities. Could the Special Rapporteur shed light on how States could strike a balance without curbing freedom of expression in the media?
Cuba, speaking on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries, said the countries of the Group received with deep sorrow the news of the passing of the late President Hugo Chavez. There should be one minute of silence in his honour. Cuba expressed its deepest solidarity, in particular to his family members and friends. It was difficult to take in this terrible event. The life and work of Hugo Chavez would always be remembered as a reference and his legacy would be an inspiration for all.
Bolivia, speaking on behalf of Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, said the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas was overwhelmed by the passing of President Chavez, whose thoughts and actions went beyond the borders of his land. The success of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas in the social arena also went beyond its borders. Its sorrow would become a commitment to continue his work, which had taken on a universal dimension. His thoughts were still thriving and flourishing.
Venezuela thanked all delegations who expressed their condolences and solidarity with Venezuela at this difficult moment and said that a book of condolences would be open for those who wished to write down their thoughts.
Bangladesh fully agreed with the Special Rapporteur that the vulnerable situation of religious minorities had attracted increased international attention in recent years and that incidents of incitement to religious hatred were also on the increase. It was therefore necessary to promote principles of tolerance and respect. By playing a positive role, civil society and the media could contribute to upholding the rights of religious minorities and by playing a negative role, they could escalate their oppression.
Australia was a home to a multitude of faiths in which the freedom of religion or belief was protected by the Constitution and reflected in the laws. This right must have a broad field of application and its interpretation could vary; this must be respected and the rights of those belonging to religious minorities must be protected. Australia shared the concern of the Special Rapporteur about the patterns of violations against freedom of religion or belief and said that certain laws, regulations and attitudes which seemed benign could impose discriminatory burdens of unjustifiable restrictions.
Turkey said that Turkey had traditionally supported the resolution on freedom of religion or belief which was the basis for the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. Turkey concurred with the Special Rapporteur that it was important to identify specific areas of violations of minority rights, but regretted that there was no reference to Islamophobia in his report. Islamophobia aimed to make enemies of millions of Muslims throughout the world and Turkey expressed its deep concern about the increasing number of acts of violence against Muslims, particularly migrants in some countries.
Malaysia expressed Malaysia’s deep condolences for the passing of President Hugo Chavez. Although Islam was recognised as the official religion in Malaysia’s Constitution, other religions could be practiced in harmony. Malaysia shared the view that there was a need for concerted efforts to address the issue of human rights violations towards persons belonging to religious minorities. Moderation should be seen as an important tool and approach to bridging different groups, facilitating dialogue and fostering harmonious relations between peoples of different faiths and beliefs. Emphasis had to be given to education.
Poland said it was essential to put an end to the practice of enforced disappearances and to ensure that the right to truth, justice and reparation were guaranteed. What concrete short and long-term measures could be implemented by the international community to enhance the level of protection of human rights defenders? What were the most effective ways to address the problem of discrimination against religious minorities and what effective steps could be taken by the international community to ensure the protection of their human rights?
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea said that the case of Jin Kyoung Suk was in its entirety a fabrication made by those forces hostile to it seeking defamation of the country. The only pending issue existing between it and Japan in the context of the abduction was the confirmation of the fate and whereabouts of million of Koreans who were forcibly drafted and abducted by the Japanese during more than 40 years of military occupation of Korea by Japan. The other cases of “South Koreans” that had newly been taken up by the Working Group were not worthy of consideration.
China said that the late President Chavez had been an outstanding leader of the people of Venezuela and a friend of China, and extended China’s condolences to Venezuela. Enforced disappearances were an extreme human rights violation. The issues of prevention, eradication, and reparations should draw on the rule of national laws. China recommended that the Working Group engage in dialogue and cooperation with the States concerned. The General Assembly should increase the resources allocated to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and to the Council to ensure their adequate functioning in that regard.
Japan said that the Working Group on enforced disappearances was a valuable tool for families which struggled to gather information about their missing relatives. How would the Working Group address the case of States which refused to cooperate? Japanese families of abductees had requested support from the Working Group over cases of enforced disappearance carried out by the authorities of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, but had not received substantive cooperation from that country. Japan was currently working with the European Union to submit a draft resolution on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea which would include the establishment of a new investigative mechanism.
Slovakia praised the large number of activities undertaken by the Special Rapporteur since last March, and called on States to offer their full cooperation. Increasing acts of violence, intolerance, and discrimination based on religious beliefs, and the rise of religious extremism reflected in attacks on places of worship around the world were a matter of concern. Those whose rights had been violated should have access to appropriate remedies and States should hold regular meetings with representatives of religious minorities to ensure that violations were prevented. Education and inter-religious dialogue could play an important role in that regard.
Libya stressed that the systematic elimination of political dissidents, including through enforced disappearances, had been a policy of the previous regime and for this reason Libya was ready to cooperate with all relevant international organizations and Governments to address this issue. Particularly welcomed was the technical assistance in the identification of victims. Several cases of enforced disappearances that had occurred over the past two years were isolated occurrences and not part of a systematic policy. Libya was in the process of adopting a law criminalizing torture and enforced disappearances and providing heavy sanctions for those crimes.
Sierra Leone said that its population was made up of Muslims, Christians, indigenous believers and persons belonging to other religions; the Constitution protected freedom of religion or belief and religious intolerance was not tolerated. Citizens could practice their own religion or change religions without interference from the Government or members of other religious groups. Religion did not play a role in ethnic identity or political affiliation and united rather than divided Sierra Leoneans. The recent civil war had not been fought on religious grounds and all factions comprised a mix of people from different religions.
Society for Threatened People said that the practice of enforced disappearances still persisted in many countries in Asia, and in China in particular, where the fate of the 300 monks of the Kirti Monastery in Tibet, taken away in Chinese military trucks in 2011, was still unclear. Despite the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion or belief, China’s introduction of new management policies on monasteries had created pressure on religious institutions in Tibet.
Amnesty International urged Pakistan to fully implement the recommendations of the Working Group on enforced disappearances. Pakistan had failed to systematically interview individuals that had been traced and to identify patterns. Amnesty International urged Pakistan to repeal the Actions Regulations and Frontier Crimes Regulations. How had the authorities responded to allegations that some persons the Working Group had met with had been threatened or intimidated?
Jubilee Campaign said it was particularly troubled by the fact that Iran continued to view attempts to convert members of the Muslim majority as a criminal offense. The Special Rapporteur rightly identified the plight of migrant workers that were denied the legitimacy of their religious practice and persecuted for their attempt to worship and referred to two relevant recent cases in Saudi Arabia and Libya. Such actions clearly violated the international standards articulated in the report.
International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism said that adequate resources needed to be provided for the Working Group to fulfil its mandate. The International Movement stressed it was the primary obligation of States to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for disappearances. Sri Lanka had failed to address the large number of disappearances and the International Movement urged the Government to invite the Working Group for a country visit.
International Humanist and Ethical Union said that religious beliefs were not genetic but cultural. Therefore, to deny the right to change or leave one’s religion was to deny one of the few rights that was absolute in international law, the right to freedom of thought and of conscience. Apostasy was not a crime but a human right. International Humanist and Ethical Union urged all States to take immediate steps to decriminalize apostasy in the name of freedom of thought and freedom of belief.
International Institute for Peace said that the practice of enforced disappearances in Pakistan was scarring the face of the Baluchistan province. Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice had been fighting a losing battle to seek accountability from the security agencies and State forces responsible for the abduction, torture, and murder of young Baluch men and women. Enforced disappearances could only be eradicated if States understood the aspirations of their people and did not judge protest as anti-State activity.
International Fellowship of Reconciliation said that the de facto authorities in the North of Cyprus made no allowance for conscientious objectors. A similar situation existed in Armenia, where conscientious objectors such as Jehovah’s witnesses were imprisoned for refusing to do military service or the alternative to military service. Many conscientious objectors were currently going through court procedures for such charges. Armenia was in consultation with the Council of Europe to review its legislation and bring it in line with international standards.
European Centre for Law and Justice, said that the primary holders of freedom of religion or belief were individuals and that the right of those changing religions must be respected, especially in the case of those leaving a majority religion to join a minority one. The European Centre for Law and Justice drew the attention of the Human Rights Council to the case of Mr. Saed, imprisoned in Iran for exercising his Christian faith.
OLIVIER DE FROUVILLE, Chairperson of the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances, thanked all delegations for their statements and the real support for the mandate and the resolute will to combat the scourge of enforced disappearances. There was a need for increased financial support for the Working Group to address the backlog of cases, and this was the real obstacle that the Working Group was facing. The country visits conducted by the Working Group always had a positive impact and created a momentum for change. Mr. de Frouville explained the rules governing the submission of communications and the procedure followed in case of limited information on cases and said that the Working Group always supported the inclusion of enforced disappearances as a separate crime in national legislation. Regarding the protection of human rights defenders and people cooperating with the Working Group, the Chairperson said there was a need for a more robust mechanism to protect human rights defenders and prevent violations of their rights. Concerning the question on the study on reparations, the Working Group felt that there was a need to update this study with the new evidence that had emerged over the past several years and said that there was no overlapping with the activities in this regard with the work on justice by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.
HEINER BIELEFELDT, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, in concluding remarks said that he could not respond to all questions raised because of the time constraints and expressed deep gratitude for the strong support given to the mandate by many delegations, especially with regards to the Ambassador of Cyprus for his kind words and commitment, and for the positive input received from Turkish Cypriots, as well as the enormous contributions of Sweden to promote inter-religious communication in Cyprus. One should not underestimate the implications of a consistent human rights approach for the understanding and practice of minority rights because it meant moving beyond various traditional concepts of focusing only on predefined groups. The specific structural vulnerability was the entry point. Good practices were not very salient. Of course the situation had to be taken into account but the best solution was not to make too much fuss, and not to expose these groups to a sometimes unwanted saliency, but giving them breathing space. This was a paradox. What was needed was an infrastructure that allowed for self-organization, with an emphasis on communication to overcome the root causes of many expressions of hostility. On root causes, the problematic pattern often identified was a combination of narrow identity politics and tight control politics. There was a need to move beyond narrow concepts. An inclusive society, as coined in the Durban Declaration, should be created. The Rabat Plan of Action gave space to some legal mechanisms. It also indicated a move away from blasphemy laws, and the idea not to be restrictive, but to make creative use of freedom of expression. On international solidarity, there was a need for public attention, without labeling groups without their wish, which was complicated but possible. The Universal Periodic Review provided a wonderful opportunity to always address questions of religious minorities in the appropriate spirit and in the human rights approach.
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