UK Parliamentary seminar examines religious freedom

15 August 2006

LONDON — Although recognized as a fundamental human right by nearly every nation, the freedom of religion or belief is woefully under-enforced by many governments and accordingly deserves more attention.

That was among the conclusions that emerged from a seminar on the issue of religious freedom that was held in Parliament here on 24 July 2006.

Sponsored by the All Party Parliamentary Friends of the Baha'is and the Baha'i community of the United Kingdom, the two-hour seminar featured a discussion by three human rights experts on the topic of freedom of religion or belief.

"The persecution of religious believers is shamefully widespread," said Kevin Boyle, a professor at the Human Rights Centre of Essex University, the first panellist.

The problem exists despite a strong international legal framework for the right to freedom of religion or belief, as outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, said Prof. Boyle.

"There is no dispute in international law as to what rights are recognized, the problems lie with the failure of states to live by international standards," said Prof. Boyle.

Prof. Boyle said nations have a positive duty to protect diversity of belief and to remain neutral regarding diverse beliefs. If one faith has a privileged position, however, it is hard for that state to promote religious equality, he said. Nevertheless, state neutrality on religion need not equate to secularism.

The right to freedom of religion and belief cannot be seen in isolation, Professor Boyle concluded. It has to be seen in tandem with other rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and in a democratic culture.

Panellist Samantha Knights said one of the most difficult areas for states to uphold freedom of religion or belief is when religious practices conflict with the wider culture.

A barrister at Matrix Chambers who has studied and worked on cases of freedom of religion or belief in the United Kingdom and the United States, Ms. Knights said the case of high school student Shabina Begum, who claimed she had the right to wear the jilbab [full Islamic dress for women] at school, illustrates the complexity in this area.

Were her rights interfered with or was she just inconvenienced, asked Ms. Knights, noting that such questions are extremely difficult for the courts to decide upon.

"When faced with issues of freedom of religion, courts need to ask if practices or beliefs are necessary to a religion or merely incidental," said Ms. Knights, saying that there is a need to balance the rights of individuals and the need to protect others.

Nazila Ghanea, the third panellist, said freedom of religion or belief is insufficiently protected in part because it has become divorced from other human rights in mainstream thinking.

Dr. Ghanea, a specialist in human rights at the University of London Institute of Commonwealth Studies who has recently been appointed to a post at the University of Oxford, said when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, the right to freedom of religion or belief as spelled out in Article 18 was held to be equal with the other rights in the Declaration.

Over time, however, the international system has shifted its focus to questions relating to race, torture, and other rights.

"There has been a divorce whereby the right to freedom of religion and belief has been separated from protection for minorities defined by race, language, etc." said Dr. Ghanea, who is a Baha'i.

Part of the problem, she suggested, is that upholding religious freedom can be a problem for states that have a patrimonial system that favors one particular religion.

"Protection for religious freedom needs to be understood as a right that is for everyone," said Dr. Ghanea. "This is currently lacking and contrasts with, for example, the provisions against torture, which are recognized as universal."

The discussion topic was introduced by Member of Parliament Ian Stewart, who said that the aim of the seminar was to promote freedom of religion and belief as a matter of principle.

"This event is not about the Baha'is, but about the challenges we all share -- and these are not the property of any one group," said MP Stewart.

In attendance were representatives of a wide variety of organizations, including the Minority Rights Group, Forum 18, Three Faiths Forum, the Jain Samaj, and the British Humanist Association, as well as the Baha'i community of the United Kingdom and Members of Parliament.

The seminar was followed by an animated discussion involving many members of the audience.

"The success of this event confirms our belief that the time is ripe for a debate in civil society about this area of human rights," said Barney Leith, Secretary for External Affairs of the Baha'i community of the UK.