Rights over Might: The United Nations, Religious Freedom and our Role and Responsibility

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, advocating on behalf of national evangelical alliances at the U.N. in Geneva.

Expert Mechanisms called Special Procedures

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 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 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 our 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 shutdown 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 Ashour strongly challenged Sudan on its criminalization of apostasy and proselytism, each punishable by death. (Watch Ben Achour’s passionate presentation at 1h01m10s 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, an Inter-Governmental Body

The Human Rights Council (henceforth the Council) is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 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: having as members grave violators of human rights.

The Council is a unique venue where the WEA interacts with diplomatic missions of 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 inter-governmental nature makes it more likely to mirror the state of affairs globally and reflect the power dynamics at play between 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 towards Saudi Arabia. This led the United States to ease, in 2016, then lift, in 2017sanctions on Sudan – despite reports stating that “Sudan’s human rights record remains abysmal in 2016”.

This month, the U.S. Department of State declared that “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 States left the European Union and its member alone in the resolution negotiations with Sudan and its allies.

The Universal Periodic Review, a Dialogue among States

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a mechanism established in 2006, along with the creation of the Human Rights Council. For the first time in history, the UPR requires every State to undergo, every four years and a half, an interactive dialogue with other States at the Council with regards to its human rights record and progress in implementing international commitments.

The WEA like all other civil society actors submits reports on the States under review when requested by our member national evangelical alliances. And we have seen mixed results. Significantly, states brought up freedom of religion or belief during Algeria’s UPR session and Sri Lanka’s UPR session. On the other hand, States made no recommendations to challenge Cuba during its UPR session to improve its Freedom of Religion or Belief record, despite our report and that of three other organizations focused specifically on this issue.

The UPR is the only human rights mechanism that is universal, predictable and that no State can avoid or afford to ignore. The WEA and other organizations advocating religious freedom are doubling efforts to reduce inconsistency in addressing Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Expectations and Illusions

As Evangelicals, we have no illusions that worldly systems are or can ever be perfect. Any expectation of perfection ignores the reality that “creation is groaning” and people, including country representatives at the U.N. and U.N. staff, are sinful. The U.N. Special Procedures have demonstrated readiness to address religious freedom just like any other human rights issue. On the other hand, the Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body that mirrors the tensions in relations between States, and the power dynamics between States that genuinely want to advance human rights, States wanting to shun oversight of their deplorable actions, and States that are too small to meaningfully influence the debate.

Moreover, despite the aforementioned resolution concerning Sudan, the Human Rights Council successfully addressed in September situations in Myanmar, Yemen, Venezuela, Burundi and Syria, among others. This is a sign that the Council is able to fulfill its mandate – albeit with a lot of maneuvering and behind the scenes lobbying.

Some criticism of the Human Rights Council, including by my fellow evangelicals, is hitting at the wrong target, and is playing directly into the hands of governments that violate human rights. Let’s not undermine the only inter-governmental institution that has the mandate to put pressure on these governments, to put their violations on the record, and perhaps hold them accountable.

The alternative to the Council is not a better-functioning international human rights mechanism. The alternative is the inability of the community of States to respond to human rights violations and atrocities committed in Myanmar, Yemen, Venezuela, Burundi and Syria – not unlike the Security Council.

Our Role and Our Contribution

Guided by our own values and ideals, I believe that we have a responsibility to engage all U.N. human rights mechanisms, with the aim of strengthening religious freedom advocacy. And, we need to make use of the exceptionally unique space afforded to civil society to advocate and challenge Human Rights Council members to put values over interests in global politics, to put rights over might.

United Nations experts mechanisms and inter-governmental bodies depend on input from us. And they can be quite responsive once trust is established – something our office has sought to accomplish.

I pray that our engagement reflects “the wisdom from above,” which James says is characteristically “peaceable” and “open to reason” (James 3:17), and builds the trust needed to effectively influence U.N. mechanisms to work for Freedom of Religion or Belief, and ultimately for the Church’s witness all over the world.

About Wissam al-Saliby

Wissam al-Saliby earned a Master’s degree in International Law with specialization in Protection and Human Security in 2006 from the Law Faculty of Aix-Marseille University, Aix-en-Provence, France. Wissam is an advocacy officer in Geneva with the World Evangelical Alliance, speaking to the UN and other policy bodies about human rights from an Evangelical perspective. He formerly served as the Development and Partner Relations Manager at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and has significant experience as a trainer in and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East. You can follow Wissam on Twitter @lebanonesia.