On 5/6 March Dennis de Jong and Ellen Verhoog attended on behalf of the intergroup and upon invitation of the EEAS a number of side events on the occasion of the 40th session of the Human rights Council. The main objective of the visit was to present the intergroup’s latest annual report to the UN-community after successful presentations in the European Parliament and in the Council’s Working Party on Human Rights on 4 and 5 September 2018 respectively.
The visit started with a number of bilateral meetings, involving the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the EU’s Special Envoy, Dr. Jan Figel, and representatives from various NGOs. Later, the delegation also met with the Dutch Ambassador in Geneva. During these meetings, it became clear that in most Member States, attention is growing for religious and belief literacy in foreign policy. The intergroup’s work, and, in particular, the academic research on which its annual report is based, was generally welcomed. Every interlocutor agreed that at the level of EU-delegations and Member States’ embassies a proper follow-up ought to be given to the often practical recommendations contained in the report.
In the afternoon, De Jong accompanied Dr. Shaheed during his meeting with interested NGOs from the Geneva based NGO Platform on FoRB. He was given the opportunity to present the intergroup’s report and called upon the NGOs to continue to approach the intergroup with their information of violations of the freedom of religion or belief in the world, as well as of best practices for the promotion and protection of this freedom, as well as for the furtherance of religious and belief tolerance.
On 6 March, the delegation attended first the side event organized by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, which focused on the Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity . While generally welcoming the Declaration which had been supported by a wide range of academics, as well as by the UN Special Rapporteur, De Jong cautioned that the repeated reference in the Declaration to ‘rights and responsibilities’ could also be abused as an instrument to restrict human rights. On the other hand, he agreed that mutual respect among adherents of different religions or beliefs is pivotal.
Also on 6 March, De Jong was one of the panelists during the side event organized by the EEAS, called ‘Two sides of the same coin’ referring to the interdependence of freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. During this event Dr. Shaheed presented his report on freedom of religion or belief in which he had recommended, inter alia, a victim-based approach in relation to penalties concerning expressions involving religion or belief. He took a stance against death penalty, arbitrary detention, discrimination (especially in the case of State religions), vagueness of the description of offences and called for an independent judiciary. Moreover, in his report, Dr. Shaheed had also incorporated the Beirut declaration on Faith for rights and the RABAT action plan as only with the full and active support of religious leaders and communities would it be possible to de-escalate current tensions surrounding certain expressions.
De Jong welcomed the report of the SR and stated that there is a need for interaction between people, groups of people and religion and belief communities and leaders. We are all responsible, we should de-escalate. When examining freedom of expression, it should be borne in mind that this is not an absolute freedom but neither is freedom of religion or belief: the bottom line is that neither of these freedoms should become meaningless. He gave the example of deliberately offensive expressions near a mosque in the Hague, the Netherlands, which could have the effect of intimidating believers and which were rightly criticized by the mayor of that city. For the EU, it would be important to support projects that could enhance mutual understanding and respect between religious communities and to involve creative industry, as mentioned in several of the country recommendations in the annual report of the Intergroup.
The last part of the visit was devoted to the meeting of the International Contact group on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the permanent mission of Canada. Many countries were present, inter alia with their Special Envoys on Freedom of religion or belief. For the first time, the ICG had invited the intergroup to speak at the part of the meeting that was open to non-State representatives. De Jong presented the history and work of the Intergroup and stressed how important an even-handed Intergroup was and will be. Also he expressed the willingness to co-operate with both the ICG as well as with international parliamentary networks. This way, the Intergroup’s activities would extend beyond Brussels and Strasbourg.