Panel "Rising Restrictions on Religion" Statement by H .E. Mr. Wolfgang Waldner, State Secretary
H.E. Mr. Wolfgang Waldner
State Secretary for European and International Affairs of the Republic of Austria
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Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honour and pleasure for me to welcome you to this expert panel. We are particularly thankful to the Washington based PEW Research Center and its representative Mr. Brian Grim who will present today the findings of his recent study on rising restrictions on religion worldwide.
Freedom of religion or belief is a basic human right protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights andenshrined in many national constitutions. However, growing discrimination and acts of violence against religious groups and minorities around the globe put the effective implementation of this universal right into jeopardy and are a deep concern to all of us. According to the findings of the Pew Research Center, nearly one third of the world’s total population lives in countries where either government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially over the past five years. Especially those who have chosen a religion that differs from the majority often face enormous difficulties, sometimes even putting their own life at risk.
The promotion of freedom of religion or belief and the protection of religious minorities are both high on Austria’s human rights agenda. In line with our traditional engagement on minority issues in the UN, we have made it one of our priorities during the Austrian membership in the Human Rights Council and are planning a series of initiatives and events for this year, which also celebrates the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Protection of Minorities. Upon Austria’s initiative this topic was also taken up prominently in the European Union and will be discussed both at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in March and at one of the next EU Foreign Affairs Councils.
At the same time, all international engagement does not dispense national states from their duty to protect their citizens, including religious minorities, in the first place. Both a certain standard of legal protection and effective preventive measures are necessary. Comprehensive tools to pursue and prosecute hate crimes and religious or other forms of discrimination have to be effectively applied.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Arab Spring has impressively demonstrated the aspirations of all people for freedom and for recognition of their fundamental and inalienable rights. But at this time of change and political transition, we also need to remain particularly watchful of the impact of political change on minority groups, especially religious minorities, who may be among the first to suffer during the course of political transition.
We cannot accept that religious minorities emerge even weaker out of the Arab Spring than they were before. We therefore must work together with the new authorities in order to effectively protect and promote human rights, including those concerning religious minorities. Respecting minority rights is an essential part of any democratic system. There can be no democratic reforms without a legal framework and a system of education ensuring the effective respect for religious minorities.
Promoting and protecting everyone’s right to express their belief and practice their religion is an ethical and political need as well as a legal obligation. In view of the recent surge of violent attacks against religious minorities, we need to step up our common efforts to make human rights policy more responsive to these urging needs. Effective monitoring should be an essential part of this policy.
On the preventive side, we have to work towards reinforcing a tolerant and open society through awareness-building and education. We alsoneed to continue promoting intercultural and inter-religious dialogue at all levels. Putting religious freedom and genuine tolerance high on the agenda of cross-cultural and inter-religious initiatives will help confidence-building between people of different religions.
The Human Rights Council is the most important international forum for discussing the issue of the freedom of religion or belief. It has appointed a Special Rapporteur that has made an important contribution to highlighting aspects of this right. In addition, a number of initiatives have been presented in the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly aimed at addressing the issue of freedom of religion and belief. This has not always happened without controversy and heated debates. Against this background, I am very pleased that last year both the EU’s initiative on the Freedom of Religion or Belief as well as the initiative presented by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation could be adopted by consensus. I hope to see more initiatives that focus on our shared commitment to the freedom of religion for all, including minorities.
Most of all though, we need an open debate on how to ensure better protection of persons belonging to religious minorities under the human rights system. Events like this panel provide a good opportunity to start this dialogue.
I thus wish this panel every success.