In response to the global rise in violence and discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, Austria has increased its activities for the promotion of freedom of religion and the protection of religious minorities at the bi- and multilateral level. In pursuing our policy goals, we aim at prevention, dialogue, and constructive partnership, and use our experience and contacts from intercultural dialogue activities.
Freedom of religion as part of intercultural and interreligious dialogue
In order to promote freedom of religion and a “dialogue of religions”, the Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs established an interreligious dialogue platform. The dialogue was officially launched on 28 May 2014 when representatives of all 16 legally acknowledged religious communities of Austria came together upon the invitation of Foreign and Integration Minister Sebastian Kurz. In addition, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue (KAICIID), which was set up in Vienna in 2012, provides another important dialogue platform. The founding treaty of the Centre explicitly refers to the human right of freedom of religion and highlights the need to combat all forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on religion or belief. On the multilateral level, Austria actively participates at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC). In February 2013, Vienna hosted the 5th Global Forum of the UNAOC. The final declaration of this conference, the “Vienna Declaration”, highlights the commitment to promote freedom of religion on the global level.
Austrian activities on the international and European level
Austria regularly addresses the issue of freedom of religion, not only with countries facing religious conflicts or tensions, but also with partner countries in order to discuss the possibilities for joint initiatives at the international level.
At the Human Rights Council of the United Nations (UN), freedom of religion and the protection of religious minorities is a priority during Austria’s membership (2011-2014). For instance, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the UN Minority Declaration, Austria raised awareness on the situation of religious minorities and initiated a discussion on the strengthening of related international protection mechanisms in the UN framework. Consequently, the 6th session of the UN Forum on Minority Issues, which was held in November 2013 in Geneva and co-financed by Austria, focussed on the topic of religious minorities for the first time.
Austria also supports the important mandates of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief as well as the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues. The mandate holders are increasingly addressing issues related to the protection of religious minorities.
Thanks to Austrian advocacy, freedom of religion and the protection of religious minorities has also become a priority issue for the European Union. Austria initiated the drafting of the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as an effective instrument for coherent EU human rights action in this area.
Austria also actively supports activities for the protection of religious minorities in the framework of the OSCE and the Council of Europe (CoE). Upon an Austrian initiative, a thematic debate took place at the CoE on the issue of freedom of religion and the situation of religious minorities. This debate resulted in the commitment that the CoE should take a leading role in this thematic area. The CoE is currently drafting a document mapping existing standards and expertise, which should in future serve as a tool for the promotion of the freedom of religion in and outside of Europe.
Freedom of religion is also one of the priorities within the human dimension of the OSCE. In December 2013 the OSCE-Council of Ministers which was held in Kiev adopted a decision on freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. The decision calls on all OSCE participating states to implement their obligations regarding freedom of religion and to respect the right of religious communities and communities of belief to non-discrimination. Austria also supports the work of the OSCE Office for democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in the area of freedom of religion. Furthermore, in 2004, three Special Representatives of the OSCE-Chairperson in Office on combating discrimination and intolerance against religious groups, on the promotion of freedom of religion and on the protection of religious minorities were established. The three Special Representatives visited Austria in 2012 and met with representatives of religious communities, civil society and relevant state authorities.