In December 2012 the European Parliament Working Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief (EPWG on FoRB), co-chaired by MEP’s Peter van Dalen (European Conservatives and Reformists Group) and Dennis de Jong (Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left), was launched. On 12th February 2014 the EPWG on FoRB presented its first annual report.
According to the report, we are currently witnessing a deterioration in freedom of religion or belief in the world. In fifteen countries, such as China, Egypt and India, the situation is so worrisome that it justifies an immediate response from the side of the EU. More generally, the report also recommends giving the promotion and protection of religious freedom in third countries a more articulate place in EU foreign policy than in the past.
Due to a lack of resources, the first annual report still largely relies on secondary data and research. The EPWG on FoRB, however, also played an important role in the drafting process of the so-called EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief. These guidelines, which were adopted by the EU Foreign Affairs Council in June 2013, among other things emphasise the universal character of the freedom of religion or belief as a human right.
UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt, who gave the keynote speech on 12th February, saw practical potential in the EU Guidelines. To make it possible for embassies and EU delegations to actually implement the Guidelines, however, the European External Action Service (EEAS) will first have to develop a more detailed internal toolkit, as recommended by the report.
Meanwhile, the presentation of the annual report took place during a conference jointly organised with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). USCIRF, a bipartisan U.S. federal government advisory body that was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, also commended the adoption of the EU Guidelines. It sees a worldwide crisis of religious freedom, which calls for coordinated international action, notably between Europe and North America.
This is all the more the case since, as the British All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom has noted, the freedom of religion or belief remains an ‘orphaned right’. Although human rights are theoretically indivisible and interdependent, in practice within the global system of human rights religious freedom remains the odd man out, with for example until today no UN Convention specifically addressing this ‘first freedom’.
Political institutions won’t be able to redress this situation by themselves, however. Thus, yet another partner facilitating the presentation of the first annual report was the European Platform on Religious Intolerance and Discrimination (EPRID), a network of civil society organisations. In a similar vein, the report recommends stronger engagement from the EEAS with religious leaders and organisations such as the World Conference of Religions for Peace.
All in all, 12th February 2014 was on the one hand a sad day in the sense that it was highlighted once again how an increasing number of people across the world are being discriminated and persecuted because of their religion or beliefs. On the other hand, it also marked a historic occasion in the European Parliament, with the EU and the US joining forces for the first time in the field of international religious freedom.