For the first time in the UN Human Rights Council’s short existence, substantive issues took slight precedence over institutional issues during this September leg of its sixth session. Although the Council still had work to do to finalise the Universal Periodic Review process, the session involved lively discussions on several issues, including the defamation of religion. In this regard, AUNO Geneva signed a statement as part of its work on religion and spirituality at the UN. In the end, a successful bid for a ‘Special Session’ on Myanmar managed to re-focus the Council’s efforts on working together to protect human rights worldwide.
A Recurring Issue: The Defamation of Religion
A schism which first opened up within the Human Rights Commission, and which now seems to have deepened within the Council, hinges upon the extent to which ‘Islamophobia’ should be considered as the most serious form of religious defamation. In general, Islamic countries, supported by many African countries, are pushing for Islamophobia to be considered as such, whereas other, mainly Western countries feel that that defamation should not be limited to any particular religion, as noted in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief.
This debate surfaced not only following the High Commissioner’s report on the defamation of religion, but also in the following contexts:
a. Follow-up to the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban in 2001. Three resolutions surrounding the follow-up to Durban were passed, despite being put to the vote due to some states’ concerns that they may create a hierarchy between victims of racism and racial discrimination. The follow-up included a specific proposal about Islamophobia.
b. Extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur (SR) on the freedom of religion or belief. Due to its hesitancy to single out Islamophobia as a form of religious defamation, the EU’s draft resolution on ‘the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief’, which also aimed to extend the mandate of the SR on freedom of religion or belief, was postponed until December’s sitting of the Council.
AUNO Geneva: Contributing to UN Debates on Religion and Spirituality
Issues that connect religion and human rights are close to the heart of AUNO Geneva’s work. As a result, AUNO Geneva signed (on behalf of the Anglican Consultative Council) a joint NGO Statement to the Human Rights Council calling for the extension of the mandate of the SR on freedom of religion or belief. Although disappointed that this mandate was not extended at this session, AUNO Geneva welcomes the extension of the mandates for the SRs on Haiti, Burundi, the right to food, indigenous people and the working group against arbitrary detention. AUNO Geneva will monitor the discussions surrounding this mandate of the SR on freedom of religion at the Council’s December session with interest.
In addition to this work at the Council, AUNO Geneva is constructively involved in UN-wide debates on religion and spirituality in the following ways:
Holding States Accountable: the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)
The Council announced the 48 countries to be reviewed in 2008 under the UPR - the Council’s flagship mechanism for examining states’ human rights records. 16 countries will be considered in turn during three sessions, most likely to be held in parallel with next year’s main Council sessions. The countries to be examined during the first session in 2008 are: Bahrain, Ecuador, Tunisia, Morocco, Indonesia, Finland, UK, India, Brazil, Philippines, Algeria, Poland, the Netherlands, South Africa, Czech Republic and Argentina.
The examination of each country will involve a three-hour debate, and will produce recommendations to the state concerned to be adopted by the Council. Three documents will facilitate the debate: a 20-page report presented by the country concerned, another 10 pages from the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights summarising the information gathered by the UN, and a third 10-page document from the High Commissioner detailing the positions of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A troika of diplomats, drawn by lot for each country, will be responsible for leading the process.
It is important that NGO and faith-based organisations are actively involved in the UPR right from the start so that a working practise of consultation and collaboration with states is developed. AUNO Geneva will be monitoring developments, and will consider if and how it could facilitate Anglican participation in this process.
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