Volume 10, Issue 2 / July-September 1998
NGOs and governments form a new coalition to promote religious tolerance
Some 200 representatives from various governments, non-governmental organizations and religious communities call for greater efforts to promote freedom of religion and belief, urging specifically that the UN office charged with monitoring religious intolerance be strengthened.
OSLO, Norway - The right to freedom of religion is surely one of the thorniest issues in international relations, concerning as it does the deepest beliefs of peoples and cultures and, all too often, touching on nerves made raw by long-running regional or religious conflicts.
So it is understandable, perhaps, that international efforts to monitor and prevent religious intolerance have sometimes been overlooked by governments and others, despite strong international declarations that clearly uphold the right of religious freedom or belief - and despite strong teachings by all of the religions that stress tolerance, peace and good will.
In August, however, a gathering of some 200 representatives from various governments, non-governmental organizations and religious communities issued a call for greater attention to the issue, urging specifically that the United Nations office charged with monitoring religious intolerance be strengthened. As significantly, perhaps, they also moved to form a new coalition aimed at bolstering such efforts.
Cosponsored by the Council for Religious and Lifestance Communities in Norway, of which the Bahá'í community of Norway is a member, the Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief brought together a highly diverse and prominent group of government delegates, human rights experts, religious leaders, and NGO representatives from 12-15 August 1998.
In its final declaration, the group urged the world community to give increased financial and personnel support to the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, the main UN officer charged with monitoring human rights violations and concerns in the area of freedom of religion or belief. In this regard, the Government of Norway announced a grant of some US$1.5 million to support the Special Rapporteur's office. The Government of Norway also gave complete financial support to the Conference.
More dramatic in some respects was the Conference's proposal to establish a coalition of "governments, religious or belief communities, academic institutions and non-governmental organizations" with the aim of giving ongoing support to the Special Rapporteur and other international institutions and instruments which aim to protect the freedom of religion or belief.
"The intention is to form the coalition as wide as possible," said Stig Utnem, chair of the Host Committee.
As such, the Conference marks yet another example of the increasing partnership between governments and NGOs in addressing key international issues.
"Everyone, including the Special Rapporteur, concedes that the NGOs have a new place in this whole order," said David Little, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, a US government-sponsored research and training center, who was the lead US representative to the Conference. "The governments themselves can't do the job, especially in human rights and particularly in religious issues. Because the interested parties are usually NGO bodies, such as religious groups. So this is a very important development in deepening cooperation between governments and non-governmental groups."
Indeed, the Conference was also noteworthy for the involvement of religious leaders from diverse communities - communities that in some parts of the world are in conflict or disharmony. Religious participants included representatives from the Bahá'í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Moslem and Sikh communities. And many of the speeches and panel discussions at the Conference focused quite specifically on regional/religious conflicts or issues as they relate to human rights, an aspect that many participants said helped to create a new dialogue among faith groups on this issue.
"The particular difficulties surrounding freedom of religion and belief which, for so long, have inhibited interreligious conversation, no doubt have to do with the very profound issues and attitudes involved in religious belief or unbelief," said Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was a keynote speaker. "The call of believer and unbeliever alike is to resist the degeneration of fundamental beliefs from their liberating potential into fundamentalist and dominating caricatures. Only in this way will authentic religious freedom be upheld."
A Strategic Plan
As outlined by the organizers, the Conference's main aim was to establish a new international coalition and develop a strategic plan to achieve real progress and practical support for Article 18 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination, which are the two main international instruments that uphold the right to religious freedom.
To that end, participants issued the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief, a two-page call to action which reaffirms that every person has the right to freedom of religion or belief; recognizes that religions and beliefs teach peace and good will; and challenges "governments, religious bodies, interfaith associations, humanist communities, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions to create educational programs using the 1981 Declaration as a universal standard to build a culture of tolerance and understanding and respect between people of diverse beliefs."
"It is becoming increasingly clear that the promotion and defense of religious freedom is one of the most pressing items on the international agenda," said Hilde Frafjord Johnson, Norway's minister of international development and human rights, who opened the Conference. "It also deserves higher priority. The work of promoting respect for human rights is rooted in a fundamental belief in human dignity. Thus, human rights are based on moral values. One of our overriding aims is to contribute to a world in which every human being is guaranteed the right to life, an opportunity to live in peace, freedom and security, and the fulfillment of basic needs. Respect for human rights is the foundation of a life of dignity. These are grand words, but they are true, and they should challenge us to action."
Ms. Johnson and others said that among the factors which have pushed religious freedom to the top of the international agenda are the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism, which have unleashed old ethnic and religious rivalries in many regions, the increasing use of religious and ethnic rivalries by leaders for political gain, and a general revival of religious feeling in many countries and regions that has sometimes expressed itself in extreme terms.
In his address Abdelfattah Amor, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, said that these new realities have created an urgent necessity for action.
"Numerous countries have problems assimilating the human rights instruments, and religious persecutions continue, including everything from verbal intimidation to violence and terrorism," said Prof. Amor, a professor of international law at the University of Tunis Law School in Tunisia. "Lack of education focused on tolerance, especially to the young generations, is a main problem."
More resources are needed, Prof. Amor said, to counteract extremism, adding that the problem of terrorists who kill in the name of God is a main challenge for society. "Silence and indifference towards these actions will only increase the phenomenon," Prof. Amor said. "Tolerance towards extremism is tolerance for the intolerable. Extremism should be counteracted in every possible way and find its definitive place where it belongs, in our history."
Throughout the Conference, speakers suggested that real hope for progress lies in an interdisciplinary, cross-sectorial approach that will bring together not only the various actors - from governments to religious organizations - but that also extends beyond simple support for legal instruments, encompassing new efforts to educate young people about the importance of tolerance.
"The critical issue is how to ensure effective international protection of freedom of religion or belief at the dawn of the 21st century," said Bahiyyih G. Tahzib, an expert on the rights of freedom of religion and belief from the Netherlands. "A host of recommendations have been made, many of them need to be more known and others require elaboration and further debate. Clearly, combatting religious intolerance and discrimination requires an interdisciplinary and long-term approach including legislative measures, legal measures, but especially measures such as education and dialogue."
Conference participants also called for new research into the issue of freedom of religion and belief, urging development of specialized informational resources and methodologies for collecting information, monitoring compliance and initiating comparative country studies. Conference organizers said they hope to establish, for example, a comprehensive site on the World Wide Web that would help provide timely information to decision-makers about intolerance.
"There is a growing body of religious, philosophical and scientific research into the root causes of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief," said Michael Roan, head of The Tandem Project, a US-based NGO that specializes in the issue of freedom of religion and belief and which was a co-organizer of the Oslo Conference, along with the Diacona College Centre in Norway. "But very little of this research has been made available in simplified form for analysis by the United Nations."
An opportunity for dialogue
The Conference itself was especially interesting because of the opportunities for dialogue that emerged. Between some of the groups represented in Oslo there are now, or have been in the past, tensions.China, for example, sent a delegation of experts; also present were representatives from exiled Tibetan groups who object to China's presence in Tibet. There were also many representatives from various countries and groups in the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Iran.
The main Bahá'í representative to the Conference, Techeste Ahderom, spoke about the situation of Bahá'ís in Iran, suggesting that there is no better example of genuine religious intolerance, inasmuch as the fundamental teachings of Bahá'í Faith call for noninvolvement in politics and the Bahá'ís of Iran accordingly eschew any political ideology. Mr. Ahderom said that Bahá'ís in Iran are nevertheless persecuted, noting that as recently as July a Bahá'í was executed by the government. [See next page.] Present during the speech were members of an academic-oriented delegation from Iran. When asked about the situation of the Bahá'ís, one of the Iranian delegates said simply, "We cannot overprotect the minorities."
On the whole, the Conference provided a forum for the expression of tolerance and good will-another example of a growing pattern of constructive transcultural discourse among the world's peoples. Numerous times, religious leaders of all creeds emphasized that religions and beliefs should teach peaceful relations with others and that they as religious authorities in their communities should do their utmost to prevent religion from being misused to cause intolerance, discrimination and prejudice.
"Where the claim to universality of fundamental human rights is denied, refuted or reduced," said Gunnar Stålsett, the Bishop of Oslo (Lutheran) and a co-president of the Conference, "we need to struggle as individuals, faith or belief communities, and nations - not with weapons that kill but with words that heal - words of spiritual wisdom, political acumen and moral conviction."
- Reported by Lisbeth Mattsson Johannensen