On 19 May Intergroup Co-Chair MEP Dennis de Jong was invited to Copenhagen to first give a public lecture at the Danish Human Rights Institute, followed by a meeting in the Folketing (the Danish Parliament) with the newly established Danish Parliamentarian FoRB Network. MEP Dennis de Jong was accompanied by FoRB Intergroup Secretariat member, Danielle Turkov.
Danish Human Rights Institute
In his lecture at the Danish Human Rights Institute De Jong started by giving some background to his commitment to FoRB in the world: “When I was a student, I discovered the strength of the Christian faith, and, in particular, its social teachings. At the same time, I was also convinced that we should all respect one another, regardless of one’s religion or belief. That determined to a large extent the choice for writing my doctoral thesis on how the United Nations has defined the scope of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, both in the codification and in the implementation debates.” He continued by explaining that it took him 22 years to finish the thesis and obtain his Ph.D. at Maastricht University, not only because he combined his research with full-time jobs, but also because, whereas in the early years of its existence, the UN had produced only limited material, from the 1980s onward, the debates on freedom of religion or belief became far more intense and produced a wealth of material.
In order to effectively protect freedom of religion or belief, De Jong explained that there are various elements that ought to be distinguished; “anything that determines your outlook on life falls within the scope of this freedom, i.e. theistic, non-theistic and even atheistic beliefs. The right to have or to change one’s religion or belief is of an absolute nature. Only the right to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject to well-defined restrictions. This means that restrictions have to be kept to a minimum, in accordance with the limitation grounds mentioned in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In the case of freedom of conscience, this implies that it is the duty of the State to respect this freedom as much as possible, and to offer alternatives, for example, in the case of conscientious objectors to military service. He concluded by stating thatundue influence in the context of proselytization played a fundamental role in shaping certain countries’ negative attitudes towardsrecognizingthe rights of all religious and belief communities. Various religious and non-religious denominations offer benefits and or privileges (including financial ones) creating a sense of competition, religion vs. religion, inadvertently increasing tensions between Governments and friction amidst communities.
De Jong steered the presentation at this point towards thework of the Intergroup on Freedom of Religion and Belief and on Religious Tolerance of the European Parliament, emphasizing the ongoing commitment of the Co-Chairs and all the cross-party, cross-nationality members at the political level, to ensure the protection of this freedom in the world remains a priority for the ParliamentDe Jong then provided insight into the powers of the European Parliament in this regard: the right to consult the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission (in this case Federica Mogherini), providing recommendations and amendments to proposed legislation and through parliamentary resolutions. The most important instrument of the Parliament is, however, the introduction of certain conditions for the funding of the European Commission’s activities. This is a tool that can, for example, be applied in respect to funding in the context of external agreements.
In order to provide a well-researched overview the Intergroup publishes an Annual Report. Sadly,every year, the reportpaints a darker picture for the situation faced by belief and non-belief groups across the world,including cases of; banning of secular or atheist practices, imposed adherence to a religion by oppressive regimes and non-State actors such as the so-called IS/Daesh.Within the scope of the report the Intergroup also reviews its partnership with the External Action Service and European Commission on the basis of established mechanisms such as the FoRB Guidelines and the Training Toolkit for EU Delegations with the objective of recommending effective ways forward.
Danish Parliamentarian FoRB Network
De Jong was invited by the FoRB Network to share the EP FoRB Intergroup experiences, challenges and best practices.
Danish MP Daniel Toft Jakobsen opened the session by thanking MEP de Jong, Norwegian MP Abid Raja and Ed Brown from the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFORB) for taking part in their first official meeting.
De Jong commenced by stating that there are clear divisions between responsibilities at the EU and National Parliament level, as the EU has limited competences in respect of foreign and security policies, and this holds even more so for the EP itself. It is therefore essential for the intergroup to build on the national parliaments’ experiences and pressures towards their own governments. Moreover, although the intergroup itself does not deal with the situation in Member States, it is crucial for the credibility of external policies that Member States “lead by example” and fully respect freedom of religion or belief within their own borders. He continued by saying how important it is for networks to be representative of all political groups to ensure that the notion of Freedom of Religion or Belief does not concentrate on the protection of a single religious and belief group but is unbiased in this respect. ..
De Jong also mentioned the crucial role of civil society for the work of parliamentary networks. NGO’s share an impressive amount of information which is reflected in the Intergroups’ annual report. The same holds for the United Nations and other international organisations.
The meeting concluded with some key suggestions including the need for the EU FoRB Guidelines to be better implemented by EU-delegations and embassies and to further , explore the possibilities for further linking external agreements to progress made in respect on human rights in general and freedom of religion or belief in particular. Also, the idea of trade and FoRB and the promotion of a code of conduct on responsible proselytisation activities.