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The UN’s Role in Defending Religious Freedom – Part 1

Many of my fellow evangelicals have expressed dissatisfaction with the United Nations, sharing views ranging from “The U.N. is an evil global government” to “The U.N. is inefficient and useless.”

One question, among many, is “What is the U.N. doing for religious freedom?

I will attempt to bring some answers to this question and to the role of the U.N., based on my experience as advocacy officer of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), advocating on behalf of national evangelical alliances at the U.N. in Geneva.

We interact with two types of U.N. mechanisms – those consisting of independent experts who sit together and make decisions, and those where the diplomatic missions of member states sit together and make decisions.

Special Procedures refers to independent human rights experts (special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts and working groups) mandated by the Human Rights Council to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective.

A treaty body is a committee of experts constituted by virtue of a human rights treaty to monitor the implementation of said treaty by member states that would have ratified it.

In February 2018, four United Nations special rapporteurs called on Iran to ensure a fair and transparent final hearing for three Iranian Christians, following WEA’s communication with the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

In June 2018, we submitted a report on the closure of churches in Algeria to the Human Rights Committee.

The Human Rights Committee (henceforth, the committee) is a treaty body consisting of 18 independent experts that monitor the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The committee included our information and recommendations in its dialogue with the Algerian delegation to Geneva in July.

In its concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Algeria, it expressed concern “by reports of closures of churches and evangelical institutions” and included the recommendation to “refrain from interfering in worship by persons who do not follow the official religion.”

Unfortunately, the Algerian government was not responsive to the committee’s recommendations. Algeria shut down an additional church in October 2018.

We also submitted to the committee a report on Sudan’s ongoing imprisonment and intimidation of church leaders, and the confiscation and destruction of church property.

The committee demonstrated similar responsiveness and challenged Sudan’s delegation, citing our report.

In addition to our own contribution, committee member Ben Achour strongly challenged Sudan on its criminalization of apostasy and proselytism, each punishable by death.

Watch Achour’s passionate presentation at 1 hour, 1 minute, 10 seconds on this video of the session.

In August 2017, the committee recommended to Pakistan to repeal blasphemy laws and to “ensure that all those who incite or engage in violence against others based on allegations of blasphemy, as well as those who falsely accuse others of blasphemy, are brought to justice and duly punished.”

Sadly, Pakistan did not implement these recommendations, and Asia Bibi continued to face injustice in Pakistani courts up until her acquittal in November 2018.

United Nations expert mechanisms have demonstrated responsiveness to our engagement with them, bringing much needed attention to violations of freedom of religion or belief that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Their communications, decisions and recommendations are legally compelling as “authoritative interpretation of international obligations of the State.” But they lack enforcement mechanisms or sanctions, unlike a domestic court ruling.

The Human Rights Council (henceforth, the council) is an intergovernmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 member states responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.

It replaced the Human Rights Commission in 2006 in a major reform effort to strengthen the human rights mandate of the United Nations.

However, the main criticism of the commission is also made for the council, which is having members that are grave violators of human rights.

The council is a unique venue where the WEA interacts with diplomatic missions of member states, brings up the most recent developments on freedom of religion or belief and relays the messages of our member national evangelical alliances.

However, unlike Special Procedures, the council’s intergovernmental nature makes it more likely to mirror the state of affairs globally and reflect the power dynamics at play between member states.

For example, in September 2018, the council voted in favor of a resolution that signaled the termination of the mandate of the independent expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan, a move that effectively downgrades scrutiny of Sudan’s human rights record.

This downgrade is at odds with Sudan’s human rights record, where freedom of religion or belief is one of several human rights issues at stake.

The European Union together with a group of countries were able still, after strong advocacy, to include in the said resolution the opening of an Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in Khartoum as the pre-condition for the termination of the mandate of the independent expert.

The council’s resolution was a major disappointment. In October, the month following the council’s resolution, Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services arrested 12 Christian believers in Nyala, South Darfur.

Reports of this incident relay accounts of beatings and accusations of the crime of apostasy.

This resolution mirrors recent developments in Middle Eastern politics. In March 2015, Sudan shifted alliances, turning away from Iran and North Korea toward Saudi Arabia.

This led the United States to ease, in 2016, then lift, in 2017, sanctions on Sudan – despite reports stating “Sudan’s human rights record remains abysmal in 2016.”

This month, the U.S. Department of State declared “Sudan commits to strengthening cooperation and meaningful reforms.”

Human Rights Watch commented that the U.S. is ignoring Sudan’s abuses against its own people.

Rather than blaming the United Nations or the Human Rights Council, I prefer to ask which member states left the European Union and its member alone in the resolution negotiations with Sudan and its allies.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. A version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies’ blog. It is used with permission. IMES’ 2019 Middle East Consultation will take place June 17-19. The focus is “Thinking Biblically about Muslims, Muhammad and the Quran: Practical Implications for the Church Today.” Additional details are available here.

Wissam al-Saliby

Wissam al-Saliby is a UN Geneva Advocacy Officer with the World Evangelical Alliance.