The EU Foreign Affairs Council recently adopted a report with 71 Guidelines on freedom of religion and belief. And while the guidelines don’t have legal force (EU guidelines that end up being legally enforceable are “regulations”), they nevertheless offer a clue as to the direction that particular councils are hoping for legislation to go. Furthermore, they send a strong political signal, especially with regard to emotive issues like religious freedom. In that context, these particular guidelines make for heartening reading.
There are 71 guidelines, and if you’ve got a moment to read them all, you’ll find plenty to applaud there. Some of the ones I’m most pleased to see are these (my emphasis):
- “All persons have the right to manifest their religion or belief either individually or in community with others and in public or private in worship, observance, practice and teaching, without fear of intimidation, discrimination, violence or attack. Persons who change or leave their religion or belief, as well as persons holding non-theistic or atheistic beliefs should be equally protected, as well as people who do not profess any religion or belief.”
- “The right to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined in relevant international standards, does not include the right to have a religion or a belief that is free from criticism or ridicule.”
- “The EU does not consider the merits of the different religions or beliefs, or the lack thereof, but ensures that the right to believe or not to believe is upheld. The EU is impartial and is not aligned with any specific religion or belief.”
- “Coercion to change, recant or reveal one’s religion or belief is equally prohibited. Holding or not holding a religion or belief is an absolute right and may not be limited under any circumstances”.
- “Freedom of religion or belief protects every human being’s right to believe or to hold an atheistic or non-theistic belief, and to change religion or belief. It does not protect a religion or belief as such. Freedom of religion or belief applies to individuals, as right-holders, who may exercise this right either individually or in community with others and in public or private. Its exercise may thus also have a collective aspect. This includes rights for communities to perform “acts integral to the conduct by religious groups of their basic affairs”. These rights include, but are not limited to, legal personality and non-interference in internal affairs, including the right to establish and maintain freely accessible places of worship or assembly, the freedom to select and train leaders or the right to carry out social, cultural, educational and charitable activities.”
- “Certain practices associated with the manifestation of a religion or belief, or perceived as such, may constitute violations of international human rights standards. The right to freedom of religion or belief is sometimes invoked to justify such violations. The EU firmly opposes such justification, whilst remaining fully committed to the robust protection and promotion of freedom of religion or belief in all parts of the world. Violations often affect women, members of religious minorities, as well as persons on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In dealing with possible violations, use will be made of existing EU human rights guidelines, notably the guidelines on the promotion and protection of rights of the child, on violence against woman and girls and combating all forms of discrimination against them, on human rights defenders, on torture and on the death penalty, as well as the forthcoming EU guidelines on the enjoyment of all human rights by LGBTI persons, and on freedom of expression on line and off line.”
To summarise a common thread in some of these guidelines, and a common-sense point: believe whatever the hell you like, and let others do the same. But your beliefs can never be used as an excuse to harm, oppress, impugn or otherwise malign someone who happens to not share that belief, or who has no religious beliefs at all. The EU Foreign Affairs Council should be applauded for this sober-minded and useful document, which will no doubt attract plenty of outrage from those who feel the grip of religion loosening its hold on the minds of increasing numbers of people all over the world.