UN Religious Freedom Report Fails to Protect Freedom
The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) recently issued a report on the global status of religious freedom. But instead of pointing out egregious religious oppression in places like China and Pakistan, the Special Rapporteur calls for governments to create “an enabling environment for pluralist and progressive self-understandings to be manifested…”
Religious freedom is inherent to us as people. It is a freedom with which no state, coercive non-state actor, or multilateral body such as the United Nations should interfere—it is not theirs to give or take away. Religious freedom must not be subverted to serve any particular political agenda.
Alarmingly, the February 27 report of Dr. Ahmed Shaheed to the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council represents a dire threat to religious freedom. Under the banner of “non-discrimination,” the report is actually an assault on religious people and organizations that hold traditional views on life, family, marriage, and sexuality.
The report addresses what it terms the “intersection of freedom of religion or belief and other rights.” The other rights, which are specifically examined through a series of in-country consultations, include protections for “women, girls, and LGBT+ persons.” The report rightly condemns violence against these persons in countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Uganda through the gross pretense of defending religion. In such countries, penal laws against homosexual activity can give license for violence and often brutal discrimination and marginalization. The report also rightly highlights endemic discrimination in many countries, such as India and Pakistan, against women who belong to minority religious groups and are subject to forced marriage and forced conversion. The report’s concluding recommendations contain several sound guidelines for advancing religious freedom, including the training of faith leaders on how certain practices justified in the name of religion are harmful and can lead to “life-threatening abuses.”
Despite these commendable efforts, Shaheed’s report implicitly blames the deplorable violence against women and homosexual persons in the name of religion on the peacefully held religious beliefs of people who uphold a traditional Judeo-Christian anthropology and morality. The report also wrongly targets those who, in good faith and without violence, hold beliefs about certain conduct and expressions that are contrary to the abortion rights and pro-LGBT agenda that the report so clearly favors.
Sub-Saharan Africa and countries in South America, such as Argentina and Uruguay, are cited for violating women’s reproductive rights through restrictive abortion policies. Chile, Brazil, Columbia, and Tunisia, among others, are singled out for the influence of religious groups who believe that popular modern understandings of gender identity, including those expressed in an advisory opinion of the Inter-American Court, are against human nature. Poland is hauled up for judgment for having interest groups that seek to amend the country’s constitution in support of pro-family policies. In raising this issue, the report implies that it is somehow a human rights violation to challenge the new gender ideology, including the desire of some Poles to “define ‘the family’ according to religiously grounded heterosexual norms.” These cannot be taken as examples of human rights violations but are simply instances of people expressing religious beliefs that differ from some secular views on sex and gender.
The report also condemns legal protections and accommodations for minority religious communities in both the West and the developing world that include protections for conscience rights of physicians unwilling to perform abortions. The United States, Poland, Kenya, and Uruguay are specifically cited in this regard. Ensuring robust religious freedom means protecting those who desire to live peacefully with their neighbors while remaining faithful to religious truth in areas of sexuality, marriage, family formation, abortion, and gender difference.
Shaheed’s report advances a confused and at times pernicious ideological framework. At numerous turns, the report is wrong about religion, human dignity, and human nature. Its characterization of peacefully held religious beliefs as harmful is problematic. For example, affirming the dignity of life in the womb or the inherent connection between gender and biological sex may be controversial, but to take the additional step of calling these perspectives harmful is unjustified and deeply troubling.
The report states “..it is difficult to justify accommodation of religious beliefs when the consequences are discriminatory and impose harm on others, especially on groups that may have long faced discrimination and marginalization.” But what constitutes harm? As stated above, any form of physical or sexual violence is abhorrent and must be condemned. Likewise, the economic or social marginalization of individuals due to their sexual orientation should be denounced. But the report also speaks of psychological harm. One doesn’t need to dismiss this concept altogether to recognize that it is ill-defined and could be used to restrict peacefully held religious beliefs that reject a modern, secularist, and radically autonomous conception of the human person. Does disagreement, even deep disagreement, on these questions equal harm?
Shaheed’s report utterly collapses vital distinctions between harm and disagreement, bias and principled objection. Accordingly, it fails to promote a vibrant pluralism in which competing, peacefully held beliefs can be followed and expressed in good faith. Indeed, the report is generally thin on advocating for robust religious freedom. It ventures well beyond the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on FoRB and into the business of championing identity politics and a secularist system of beliefs. Underlying those beliefs are fundamental claims about human nature and morality that are incompatible with many religious traditions. Secularist beliefs should not receive preferential treatment solely because they are secular. Shaheed should call for religious freedom for everyone rather than put his thumb firmly on the scale in favor of secularist ideals and objectives. To be clear, religious freedom has limits and should never be used to justify violence or invidious discrimination. But this report is replete with examples of competing rights claims that come nowhere near those limits.
The drafters of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights – including Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Malik, and Jacques Maritain – articulated in that project and in their own writings a profound understanding of the dignity of the human person. Indeed, they understood that the human person bears a dignity that is not limited in any way by their personal abilities, physical characteristics, beliefs, or sexuality. No, our dignity is found within each of us and is evident not only in our rational faculty but also our inherent desire to seek meaning within and beyond ourselves. Importantly, we must also remember that our dignity is not violated when we encounter disagreement.
It is this understanding of human dignity which must continue to undergird our collective understanding of all fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion.
The Rev. Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett serves as Senior Fellow and Director of the North America Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute. He is a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic deacon of the Eparchy of Toronto and Eastern Canada. Fr. Deacon Andrew also serves as Senior Fellow at Cardus, Canada’s faith-based think-tank, where he is Programme Director of Cardus Law which looks at the role of law in society with a particular focus on religious freedom in Canada. He holds a B.A. Hons. in History (Dalhousie), an M.A. in History (McGill), and a Ph.D. in Politics (Edinburgh).