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A recap of progressive language on religion, culture, and tradition from HRC34

The 35th session of the Human Rights Council takes place from 6-23 June, 2017.  As we look ahead to this session we share a refresher on key progressive language relating to religion, culture, and tradition that came out of the last session (27 February - 24 March 2017).

Addressing misconceptions about the right to freedom of religion or belief

Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief: A/HRC/34/50

In his report, Ahmed Shaheed addresses misconceptions around the right to freedom of  religion or belief, and highlights the intersections of this right with numerous other rights, such as gender equality and non-discrimination. Attempting to broaden the understanding of this right, he clarified the extent and boundaries in the exercise of this right in relation to other rights and rightholders.

  • The right to freedom of religion or belief can never be used to justify violations of the rights of women and girls.

  • Instances of forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced conversion, "honour" killing, "enforced ritual prostitution"[1], sexual slavery, trafficking and "over-policing"[2] of dress codes, and the denial of educational and employment opportunities, cannot be justified on the basis of this right.

  • This right does not give the individual – as a right-holder – the power to marginalize, suppress or carry out violent acts against other individuals and those in vulnerable situations, such as women or members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, under the guise of manifesting their religion, or as constituting the “moral high-ground”.

Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Islamic Republic of Iran presents his report at the 31st regular session of the Human Rights Council. 14 March 2016.
  • Individuals, not religions or belief systems are the right-holders of the right to freedom of religion or belief. More specifically, this right is not designed to protect beliefs as such (religious or otherwise), but rather believers and their freedom to possess and express their beliefs.

  • The right to freedom of religion or belief is not contingent upon recognition or registration by the State and is not limited to traditional, mainstream or “recognized” religions and practices.

  • This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and cannot be restricted, limited, interfered with or derogated from under any circumstances, including during times of public emergency.

  • Policies or practices that do not target the adoption of a particular religion or belief may still amount to a violation of  this right if they are intended to impair an individual’s ability to freely hold, adopt or change their religion or belief, or if they have such an effect.
    Examples of indirect yet impermissible restrictions could include limitations on access to education, medical care or employment, or family law matters, such as custody of children, which have the ultimate effect of impairing the individual’s ability to freely hold, adopt or change his or her religion or belief.

  • The right to freedom of religion or belief cannot be restricted on the grounds of national security, and the non-discriminatory nature of the right ensures that nationality cannot form a basis for imposing restrictions on minorities, migrants or non-nationals.

  • The pre-eminence enjoyed by religions or State ideologies should not result in the impairment of this or other fundamental rights recognized under international law; nor should it result in any discrimination against persons who do not accept the official ideology or who oppose it.

The impact of fundamentalism and extremism on cultural rights

Report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights: A/HRC/34/56

Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune presented the second report of her mandate, which focuses on the importance of combating fundamentalisms and extremisms in order to safeguard cultural rights.

The report gives a number of recommendations for a global rights-based response to fundamentalisms and extremisms that centres cultural rights and the principle of equality.

  • States parties should ensure that traditional, historical, religious or cultural attitudes are not used to justify violations of women’s right to equality before the law and to equal enjoyment of all Covenant rights. Cultural relativism has been clearly and repeatedly rejected by international human rights law as a justification to infringe on what are perceived competing rights.

  • The struggle for women’s rights is an essential component of the fight against all forms of extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism, not an optional one.

  • The human rights approach to fundamentalism and extremism should encompass State and non-State actors and at its core have the respect and guaranteeing of other intersecting human rights.

  • Hence, the human rights struggle against each manifestation of fundamentalism or extremism, rather than being in competition or in tension with the struggle against other manifestations, is complementary. One form of fundamentalism or extremism is not a justification for another.

Civil society actors confronting fundamentalists require resources, structures, visibility and access to media outlets so that their efforts can crystallize into a more systematic and institutionalized opposition.

  • Governments must not make the mistake of thinking they can use so-called “non-violent extremism”, which often includes advocacy of discrimination against women and minorities and fosters violence against them, as a tool to fight what they deem violent extremism. The highest price for such blunders is paid by women.

  • The Rapporteur called on governments to ensure there is a counterweight to fundamentalist and extremist discourses by publicly challenging them, and by guaranteeing education aimed at dismantling their ideologies.

  • States must respect, protect and fulfil human rights, in particular cultural rights, meaning that they must:
    (a) stop supporting directly or indirectly fundamentalist ideologies;
    (b) protect all persons from any act of fundamentalist or extremist groups aimed at coercing them into specific identities, beliefs or practices; and
    (c) design programmes aimed at creating conditions allowing all people to access, participate in and contribute to cultural life, without discrimination.

  • Arts, education, science and culture are among the best ways to fight fundamentalism and extremism. Cultural rights, understood as fully integrated within the human rights system, are critical counterweights to fundamentalism and extremism; they call for free self-determination of individuals, respect for cultural diversity, universality and equality.

For more, see the statements made by  AWID and the International Coalition of Human Right Defenders (IC) in support of this report:

HRC 34: AWID Statement on protecting cultural rights on a basis of equality

HRC 34: Women human rights defenders challenge fundamentalist and extremist rhetoric and ideologies

The 34th Session also saw significant challenges arise during negotiations on the child rights resolution, with hostile amendments brought by anti-rights actors.

Follow more of the progressions and regressions from HRC34:

[1] This is the term used in Special Rapporteur’s Shaheed’s report to refer to certain practices of forced sex work which are justified by certain actors on the basis that they are religiously or traditionally sanctioned.
[2] While Special Rapporteur Shaheed refers to “over-policing” of dress codes, we affirm that no stipulations or restrictions on women’s dress are ever acceptable, including on the basis of religious, culture, or tradition.