Issue Status: Distributed to representatives of religion and belief on
UN critiques freedom of religion and belief in the UK:
The Advance Edited Version of a report by the UN’s highly respected Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, which examines the state of religious freedom across the UK, has been published on the internet ahead of interactive dialogue at the UN Human Rights Council in coming months. A copy was forwarded to the Government a few weeks ago, as is customary.
Ms Asma Jahangir 55, in the role since 2004, conducted Country Visits in 2007 to Angola, Tajikistan and at short notice to the United Kingdom, from 4 to 15 June, with the agreement of the UK Government.
When at an Amnesty International Lecture at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford on 30 January entitled ‘The Tolerance Policy –Way Out or Compromise?’ the Special Rapporteur commented -without making direct reference to the UK, that in essence there is scope for improvement in the First World’s observance of international instruments, and in the same address, that she frequently likes to intervene pre-emptively. Human rights representatives within the UN system explain that because G8 legislation often serves as a role model for civil servants across the Developing World, it is beneficial for the UN to keep a close eye on legislation at source.
Her 23 page report, recognizes an “overall respect for human rights and their value” in the UK, and that immigrants for example, often find situations here far improved from those in their original homelands. Nevertheless, the report is prepared with velvet boxing gloves, and its 6 pages of conclusions and recommendations pull few punches.
These focus on issues such as sectarianism, counter-terrorism, religious education, collective worship, religious symbols, the balancing of competing rights, provisions on offences related to religions, and the definition of “religion” or “belief”.
The Special Rapporteur highlights the plight of the voiceless including women & converts who face challenges within the communities of their current or former religion. The UN official says she has “received reports of informal matrimonial courts operating within the Muslim community based on sharia law”. Ms Jahangir comments that the “argument by some religious leaders that traditions should override the rights of women is unacceptable.” On the subject of freedom to change a religion or belief, she states the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18) and European Convention on Human Rights (Article 9) are unequivocal.
Another vulnerable group, -refugees & asylum seekers require impartial and quality translation services, backed up by accurate Country of Origin Information about nations they may have fled from, to ensure fair analysis of their claims, the Special Rapporteur and Baha’i members observe. Ms Jahangir has been informed that some adjudicators’ test questions on faith, such as how do you prepare a turkey for Christmas, do not really cut the mustard. In her conclusions Ms Jahangir also writes she “would like to reiterate that a post-departure conversion should not give rise to a presumption that the claim is fabricated.”
By way of context, in the second quarter of 2007, The Border and Immigration Agency granted 14 per cent of applicants asylum on first decision (and humanitarian protection to a further 9 per cent). The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal granted 23 per cent of appeals in the same quarter.
The Special Rapporteur learned that in Northern Ireland Catholics remain under-represented in the police, prison and other justice agencies, while there are insufficient Protestants in health and education. Ms Jahangir echoes anxieties raised by the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights that schooling in NI remains segregated along religious lines, and that this serves as a catalyst for bullying, often made easier by distinctive school uniforms. She invites Scottish football clubs to consider means to tackle sectarian related violence involving Irish Catholic and British Protestant fans.
She commends the UK for the depth of its experience in addressing religious tensions and the underlying causes, and for the nature of its responses to terrorist acts. However Ms Jahangir seconds Finnish Law Professor Martin Scheinin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism (since 2005), in his singling out of terms from the Terrorism Act 2006 such as “indirectly encouraging” acts of terrorism, and “glorification” (interpreted to mean “any form of praise or celebration”), due to these turns of phrase appearing in her words “to be overly broad and vaguely worded.”
Muslims in particular she claims now face screening, searches, interrogation and arrest. The Special Rapporteur warns this may ironically harm intelligence gathering for counter-terrorism, due to an undermining of police and community relations. The report quotes research revealing that 80 per cent of Muslim respondents have experienced discrimination. Ms Jahangir says “the practical implementation of section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which authorizes the police in designated areas to stop and search people without having to show reasonable suspicion, seems to affect ethnic and religious minorities more than other groups, especially since the attacks of 7 July 2005”. Figures for 2004 to 2006 “show that searches of people with Asian appearance under this provision increased by 84 per cent, compared to an increase of only 24 per cent for White people” she continues. Ms Jahangir reiterates Mr Scheinin’s opinion that 28 days in detention without charge is unsatisfactory, unless backed up by regular and comprehensive judicial review.
Ms Jahangir refers to the “potential abuse of the provisions on the failure to disclose information about acts of terrorism” with regard to legal professionals representing clients, highlighting that she is aware section 38B of the Terrorism Act 2000 has been used to threaten charges against at least one solicitor. There is also anxiety about the perceived “inflammatory” tone of some media reporting when referring to Muslims.
The Special Rapporteur advises “it is not the Government’s role to look for the ‘true voices of Islam’ or any other religion or belief. Since religions or communities of belief are not homogeneous entities it seems advisable to acknowledge and take into account the diversity of voices” she continues. Forms of expression which violate the rights of others, should be inherently inhibited in any case, by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 18, para 3).
In her overview of cases Ms Jahangir registers anxieties that Christian Students’ Unions at a number of campuses face pressure due to university equal opportunities policies, and that the Sexual Orientations Regulations may affect religious adoption agencies. She acknowledges that the SORs contain exemptions or transitional arrangements for many organisations working with religion of belief, and that the balancing of competing rights that take account of liberal, orthodox, and secular points of view, re organisations not covered by these arrangement will ultimately have to be decided case by case. Members of the LBG community argue existing exemptions already “favour religion” and stress that “non-discriminatory delivery of goods and services is crucial especially when public services are contracted out to faith-based organizations.”
The report picks up on the quashing of additional harassment clauses in The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 by the High Court of Justice in NI on 11 September 2007 “because the width and vagueness of the definition of harassment gave rise to a risk of incompatibility with both freedom of speech and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
In her conclusions the Special Rapporteur says she “would like to emphasize that there exists no hierarchy of discrimination grounds” –in which for example religion should have a lower ranking when competing rights are being balanced. The upholding of a court judgment which states the rights of a man sacked for not working on Sunday have not been compromised, she gives as “another example of this trend.”
The report acknowledges the sobering distinction between surveys which measure “belief” or “practice” as opposed to just “religious affiliation”. Separate survey results which reveal that while 71.8 per cent claimed Christian affiliation in the 2001 national census, by 2007 two-thirds of the British either do not claim membership of a religion or say that they never attend a religious service, indicate freedom from religion and from the influence of associated institutions may become as prominent an issue as freedom of religious opinion and expression in the near future.
In the report, the retained role and privileges of the Church of England are consequently queried by “some” Christians on the grounds they do not reflect “the religious demography of the country and the rising proportion of other Christian denominations.” Further research is quoted claiming that only 15.5 per cent attend a monthly service, and 28 per cent are lapsed worshippers, with no intention of returning to a fold. Sikhs also query why a Sovereign has to be a Protestant Christian, taking an oath to “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law.”
Sikhs express concern that there has been little State financial support for schools run by religious groups which are not Christian. The content of religious syllabuses in publicly-funded education requires careful attention, and committees involved in preparing syllabuses need to ensure their membership is non-discriminatory, she writes, saying this is “vital” for balanced representation of theistic, non-theistic and atheistic approaches. The Special Rapporteur “notes with appreciation” that the parental right to excuse children from religious education or worship, and the recent creation of an opt-out for sixth formers from attendance at the latter, complies with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 12 para 1), which states children’s views relative to their age and maturity should be respected.
The continuation of a blasphemy offence which only protects Christianity, and lacks a counterbalancing mechanism to take account of freedom of expression is criticised by the Special Rapporteur as being discriminatory. She refers to a 2007 Assembly of the Council of Europe resolution (1805) calling on member States to review their national laws “in order to decriminalise blasphemy as an insult to a religion.” Ms Jahangir offers the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 20, para 2) as an alternative. Promotion of national, racial or religious hatred would constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.
She praises the free speech balance finally achieved in the the Racial and Religious Hatred Act for England and Wales, and calls for similar legislation in Scotland. She writes “it tries to strike the delicate balance with freedom of expression by banning threatening words and behaviour rather than restricting discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult.” The Act closes a “protection gap” for people subjected to hatred on grounds of religion. Earlier test cases have shown similar protections on the grounds of race only extend to Jews and Sikhs. She points out that “the Government should regularly publish statistics of prosecutions and convictions for incitement to religious or racial hatred. HMG also needs to monitor the situation closely in terms of the background of the victims and perpetrators” she adds.
Hindus report and that their languages have been unfairly excluded from the British curriculum. Sikhs voice concerns about an increase in attacks since 9/11 and 7/7 and turbans being treated as a health and safety problem by some employers. Both Hindus and Sikhs say that they are not adequately represented in Parliament. Jews report a 31 per cent rise in the number of anti-Semitic attacks in 2006. Buddhists highlight difficulties in obtaining sufficient visas for teacher monks.
The Church of Scientology alleges its non recognition as a religion by the Government or as a charity constitutes discrimination. Humanists point out that marriages conducted by their celebrants are not legally recognized in England and Wales, unlike in Scotland. Atheists, secularists and humanists believe they face institutional and legal discrimination. For example the Charities Act 2006 recognizes the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose. However the advancement of humanism is not recognized, and so affiliated institutions have to justify charitable status on other grounds. The Act states that charities have to satisfy a public benefit test. It is hoped that draft guidance on the principles of public benefit, and forthcoming supplementary guidance this year on public benefit for charities that advance religion will offer impartial respect for multiple conscience positions (as promised by Government Ministers), and set out under international instruments.
The chief international legal standards referred to in the Report and cited as being relevant to the Rapporteur’s mandate include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Articles 2,18,20,26,27), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (13), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (2), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (5), and Convention on the Rights of the Child (2,14,30). Though not ratified by the UK, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families is also mentioned.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2,18,26) and Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief are quoted as offering guidance.
As twice chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Ms Jahangir was released in November from house arrest in Lahore, Pakistan, following strong global representations, including from the British Government. The mother of 3 cut her teeth by co-founding, together with her sister Ms Hina Jilani, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, Pakistan’s first women’s legal practice in 1980.
Ms Asma Jahangir's full report, compiled with the help of her assistant Michael Wiener can be read at:
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