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For years, Yazidi girls in Iraq were denied by ISIS their right to believe in their God; they were also raped, murdered, forcefully married, and stripped of basic education and their chance to equality and a future, all because of their faith, and of someone else’s wicked use of religion.
Nadia and Lamiya defeated fear and persecution, to bring these atrocities to public light and their perpetrators to justice. And for this reason they were awarded, in 2016, Europe’s highest human rights recognition, the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize.
The horror of their suffering is, of course, unique to them; but it is also emblematic of the multiple violations of the fundamental human right of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief: The violent denial of one’s right to choose freely their religion or belief system; the countless violations, often through the invocation of religion, of other human rights, such as the right to life, to gender equality and non-discrimination, to education and health, to freedom of expression and association, to human dignity itself; and the all-too-frequent failure of governments to live up to their obligation to protect FoRB and all other human rights.
We are here today because we believe that positive change on religious freedom must and can happen, but it won't happen without our individual and collective engagement to promote and protect all human rights.
So let me thank Vice-President Pence and Secretary Pompeo for the honour to speak here, and for today's Ministerial. This country, the United States of America, was built on the promise of religious freedom for all. And so was the European Union, emerging as it did from the hateful ashes of the Second World War.
But it is not merely our American or European values that inspire us in this room, that fuel our passion for justice, although they certainly do. The real power and promise of our joint engagement today, of our hope to mobilize the world towards a more prosperous and peaceful future, also springs from the universal nature and appeal of Human Rights themselves.
It's been seventy years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, which includes the critical right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief (Article 18). This is both our international legal obligation and our compass as we protect FoRB, in our own societies and in the world. When FoRB comes under attack, all other rights can also be violated. When other rights are violated, then FoRB violations are often not far behind.
So the question is: How can we, together, fight discrimination, and how can we build more inclusive, resilient societies?
1) Political commitment, binding laws and education in our own countries
First, the work has to begin in our own societies: We need to combat all sorts of discrimination, with good and strong laws. The European Union works constantly to ensure that freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief is set out in our domestic legislation. We have strong laws against discrimination, racism, xenophobia and incitement to violence and hatred, including on religious grounds. We are constantly monitoring our performance in terms of effectively implementing those laws.
But beyond that, we need to recognize that our communities are sometimes struggling to find "unity in diversity". To accept everyone's differences while recognising that we are all endowed with the same inalienable rights.
This is a generational challenge for our societies, a challenge that calls for everyone to mobilise – within our governments, but also in our education systems, in the media, in public debate, or simply in our daily lives.
So, together with laws, we have to work to build a more inclusive culture. We must make clear that this is not about giving up national or regional traditions and specificities. On the contrary, we need to recognise that diversity makes everyone richer. If we are really comfortable in our faith and culture, we shouldn't have a problem in accepting people who are different from us. But if I don't know who I am, then I am more easily scared by "the other."
Education is essential to this end. We can build societies where everyone has the right to their own identity, while everyone follows a common set of human rights-mandated rules, stemming from our common humanity and grounded in national laws.
This is true for Muslims and for Christians alike, for Jews and Hindus, for religious and secular people, in Europe just like everywhere else.
2) Political commitment in our external policies
Second, we must buttress our political commitment to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief in our foreign policy work, when this right is challenged outside of our borders.
Today, new challenges to freedom of religion and belief have arisen, all around the world. Yes, this is happening because of the threat of terrorist organisations and a rise in sectarian conflicts, but also as many governments are curtailing human rights and civic space more generally. Too often, religious minorities and those of no religion can become the scapegoats for any sort of problem. We have seen it happen before, and yet it is happening again – in spite of our international commitments and our national laws.
This is often the case for Christian minorities in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. Christians are increasingly discriminated, harassed and persecuted in large parts of the Middle East, and the number of Christians is drastically decreasing as a result in these regions.
At the same time, persecution rarely targets just one minority. As we see in Syria and Iraq, not only Christians, but also Yazidis, Muslims and other religious communities or non-believers are suffering from discrimination, harassment and persecution. And very often, such persecution is more about politics and power, than about religion itself.
We, in the European Union, have put freedom of religion and belief at the core of our foreign policy. The EU and all its member states have recently adopted a special set of politically binding “Guidelines” on FoRB in our foreign policy. In addition, our Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy in the World prioritizes several FoRB-specific actions. Promoting FoRB is part of my work as the EU Special Representative for Human Rights and that of many others in the EU system, and it is a constant focus of our engagement with all our partners.
Our message is clear and consistent, at all corners of the world and with all partners, big and small. Government officials and political leaders have a duty to guarantee freedom of religion and belief, and they must not use "national security" arguments to undermine it.
Religious leaders, on their part, have a very special responsibility. They should lead in highlighting that it is never OK to discriminate against, let alone to eliminate, anyone on the basis of what they believe or do not believe. History should teach us: whenever God was used to justify war and murder, it was all about power, not about faith.
3) Working together in multilateral and regional human rights fora
Third, and beyond domestic and foreign policy work, the work for human rights is and must be a global effort. We Europeans believe that the United Nations is the natural multilateral forum to advance and protect human rights, including freedom of religion and belief. Global rules and international agreements should not be perceived as a constraint for some, but as a protection for all.
The Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UNGA Third Committee in New York have been pivotal in our collective efforts to promote freedom of religion and belief. Through those forums we support countries that wish to better guarantee their citizens' freedoms, listen carefully and learn from criticism of our own record, and highlight egregious violations in need of urgent attention around the world.
Whether through UN Resolutions or item 4 Statements at the HRC, the European Union and the international community collectively have had a solid forum to raise the alarm on suppression of freedom of religion and belief in countries as diverse as China, Pakistan, Myanmar, DPRK, Syria, Iran and countless others, and also to address violations by Da'esh.
For many years the European Union has also worked to lead a principled UN Resolution specifically on freedom of religion and belief in both the Human Rights Council and UNGA Third Committee. This remains an important vehicle in aligning many countries behind a strong international commitment for these basic freedoms and universal rights. We have worked closely with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on their "twin"resolution on 'Combating Intolerance' to ensure complementarity of both resolutions and universal ownership, and we look forward to more cooperation on this in the context of the Human Rights Council's efficiency reform.
4) Defending the Universality of Human Rights
Finally, dear friends, we all have different cultures and beliefs. But we also all share the same humanity. We believe that all human beings are endowed with certain inalienable rights. And we believe that human rights must be the same for everyone, regardless of how we pray or not pray, of the colour of our opinions, or the colour of our skin.
If it becomes OK to violate the rights of those least popular in any one society, then everyone's rights are at risk. Picking and choosing among rights is dangerous for all.
Let us not forget that, in one setting or another in our lives, we are all “minorities.” If only the rights of those “I like” or those who are “like me” are to be protected, then no one’s rights are ever truly safe.
Human Rights have never been a battle betweendifferent cultures, regions, religions, or political systems, between the 'West' and the 'East', the 'North' and the 'South'. The struggle for human rights runswithineach of our cultures and civilisations. Human rights have always been the universal shield of the powerless, in any religion, culture or society, against the cultural relativism of the powerful.
Think about it: You will rarely hear victims of human rights violations tell you to stay away, to not come to their defence – they are the powerless. But you will often hear those violating rights tell you to stay away, because of local traditions, "special" circumstances, security considerations, or any other reasons that "you just don’t understand". They are the powerful.
Let us always keep in mind that minorities are like the canary in the coal mine. They are the first to feel that the oxygen is getting scarce. If they are coming under pressure, then we know that it is just a matter of time before everyone else is affected.
Freedom of religion or belief belongs to everyone, even if, unfortunately, it is challenged in all corners of the world. But together, we can try and make each of our societies a bit less imperfect – or "more perfect", in the beautiful worlds of the US Constitution.
We know what side we are on. Because when we protect someone's freedom, we protect everyone's freedom.