Press Release

PRESS RELEASE:

Issue Status: Distributed to the media on 22/2/2008

UN Human Rights report on religious freedom in UK urges Parliament and Primates to embrace tough challenges:

A hard hitting UN Human Rights Commission report examining freedom of religion and belief across the UK, has been published on the internet, ahead of dialogue about its implications at the UN Human Rights Council.

The Government received an advance copy of the Countries Visit Report by the same month -January, in which it opposed an amendment protecting free speech in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

In a possible hint of irony, the author Ms Asma Jahangir 55, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief since 2004, highlighted that there were issues with First World Countries' observance of international instruments, while delivering an Amnesty International Lecture 'The Tolerance Policy -Way Out or Compromise?' in Oxford on 30 January.

The twice chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, only herself released from house arrest in Lahore during November, writes her assessment with velvet boxing gloves, but pulls few punches. She conducted similar visits to Angola and Tajikistan in 2007.

The UN official picks up on the High Court Defeat of the Government over harassment clauses in The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland). She explains this occurred “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.” It is a mistake for which taxpayers are having to pick up two thirds of the legal bill.

Members of the Lesbian Gay and Bi-sexual community are quoted as stressing that “non-discriminatory delivery of goods and services is crucial especially when public services are contracted out to faith-based organizations.”

The Special Rapporteur states in her conclusions however that 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.

In this context, the counterbalancing of rights between University Christian Unions and campus equal opportunity policies, faith based adoption agencies and LBG couples, and even companies who wish staff to work on Sundays, are all acknowledged.

Ms Jahangir similarly singles out terms from the Terrorism Act 2006 as being “overly broad and vaguely worded.” Phrases she focuses on include “indirectly encouraging” acts of terrorism, and “glorification” (interpreted to mean “any form of praise or celebration”). This seconding of Finnish Law Professor Martin Scheinin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism (since 2005), is a classic reinforcement tactic employed by Special Rapporteurs with different mandates.

While Ms Jahangir recognizes an “overall respect for human rights and their value” in the UK, commending Britain for the depth of its experience in addressing religious tensions and underlying causes, she identifies that Muslims in particular face screening, searches, interrogation and arrest. She warns this may be counter-productive if intelligence gathering for counter-terrorism purposes is affected by an undermining of police and community relations.

The report quotes research revealing that 80 per cent of Muslim respondents have experienced perceived discrimination. Ms Jahangir writes “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 a further opinion of Professor Scheinin, that 28 days in detention without charge is unsatisfactory, unless backed up by regular judicial review.

The UN official refers to the “potential abuse of the provisions on the failure to disclose information about acts of terrorism” citing an alleged situation where section 38B of the Terrorism Act 2000 has been used to allegedly threaten charges against a solicitor after he has met with a Muslim client.

The Special Rapporteur says she has “received reports of informal matrimonial courts operating within the Muslim community based on sharia law”. The mother of 3 comments that the “argument by some religious leaders that traditions should override the rights of women is unacceptable.”

Refugees & asylum seekers require impartial and effective translation services, backed up by accurate Country of Origin Information about nations they may have fled from, for fair analysis of their claims, the Special Rapporteur and Baha’i members observe. Ms Jahangir indicates 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 adds she “would like to reiterate that a post-departure conversion should not give rise to a presumption that the claim is fabricated.”

The report acknowledges a sobering distinction between surveys which measure “belief” or “practice” as opposed to just “religious affiliation”. While 71.8% claimed Christian affiliation in the 2001 national census, by 2007 two-thirds of the British either do not admit to membership of a religion, or say that they never attend a religious service, according to the report, indicating freedom from religion is becoming as important as freedom of religion.

The retained role and privileges of the Church of England are consequently queried on the grounds they do not adequately 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 of the population attend a monthly service, and 28 per cent are lapsed worshippers, with no intention of returning to a fold.

The retention 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 on the grounds it is 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 suggests the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR Article 20, para 2) as an alternative. Promotion of national, racial or religious hatred would constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

Hindu representatives report 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.

Other sections of the document focus on religious education, collective worship, religious symbols, further offences related to religions, “public benefit test” guidance for charities and associated definitions of “religion” or “belief”.

The wide ranging report even contains an invitation to Scottish football clubs to consider means to tackle sectarian related violence involving Irish Catholic and British Protestant fans.

The full text can be read at:

http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/7session/reports.htm and by scrolling down to document reference: A/HRC/7/10/Add.3.

ENDS

Word Count: 1218

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