April 3, 2017
by Sophia Kuby
If the EU is serious about its commitment to peace, democracy, and human rights, it has to step up its efforts on freedom of religion or belief. This can only be done meaningfully by establishing an EU Special Representative on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
25 years ago, in the founding Treaty of the EU (the Maastricht Treaty), the EU officially decided to protect and promote human rights in the world. This included freedom of religion or belief. It is a fundamental human right protected by all the major human rights treaties.
Since 1992 however, the EU has floundered in this commitment and it took more than 20 years to take any other significant steps on religious freedom. In June 2013, the Foreign Affairs Council agreed on the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief in the world. The Guidelines read as a detailed operating manual for EU officials in Brussels and across the globe.
With the Guidelines, the EU committed to raise the issue of religious freedom through public diplomacy: through high-level contacts, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, and through regular political dialogue with third countries. In addition, the human rights country strategies, official country visits, as well as the weight of the EU’s voice at the UN, were agreed upon as important avenues to promote freedom of religion or belief.
The Guidelines demonstrate a serious commitment to freedom of religion and belief. They even make the protection of religious freedom a condition for economic and political collaboration with the EU. However, there have been no institutional adjustments to follow through with these self-imposed obligations. A first evaluation report was due in 2016 but has not yet been published and no date for publication has been announced.
The many avenues, instruments, and mechanisms that exist in the EU structures for promoting freedom of religion or belief are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the existing structures offer excellent avenues through which religious freedom can be promoted in the world. On the other hand, to mainstream, a concern for freedom of religion or belief requires a strategic use of many institutional avenues in parallel. To use a metaphor, it needs a conductor of the polyphonic orchestra that the EU is in order to strike a better and more co-ordinated tone on religious freedom. A commitment made on paper may be neglected if no one is responsible for pulling the strings together and can be held accountable for the results.
The current situation is as if all elements for an effective protection of freedom of religion or belief in the EU’s external policy were there, but there is no one to put the puzzle together in a coherent way. Without a central position that has the necessary clout to pull all the pieces together, the implementation of the obligations laid out in the Guidelines has proven and will remain, impossible.
In May 2016, at the height of the crisis in the Middle East, and following a European Parliament resolution on the systematic mass murder by ISIS, the position of a Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU was created. This was an important, albeit insufficient, development in making the EU’s commitment more concrete.
Unfortunately, the mandate is exceptionally weak. While the first ten months have allowed the Special Envoy to gain significant visibility as the representative of the EU for all religious freedom-related matters, his position is not an institutional one. He is a special advisor to the Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development. The mandate originally came with no staff nor budget, and it is limited to a one-year term.
At the close of the one-year term of this Special Envoy, and in light of the fundamental importance of freedom of religion, the EU cannot afford to ignore the growing, critical need to address religious freedom matters adequately and coherently.
Here is how the EU can act, right now, to champion the human rights that it has vowed to protect:
- Establish a Special Representative on freedom of religion and belief as an institutional position similar to the nine existing Special Representatives. Following the EU resolution of 4 February 2016, it would be appropriate to turn the position into an EU Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief, reporting directly to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the Foreign Ministers’ Foreign Affairs Council (FAC). The position needs to become a central part of the EU’s foreign relations system. The work should be closely coordinated with the EU Special Representative for Human Rights in order to guarantee the essential link between religious freedom and Human Rights.
- Properly fund the office. An EU position on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief requires the necessary clout to maneuver a complex and heavy institutional structure. It should make religious freedom a priority in the EU’s external action. This is only achievable with a well-equipped office, a serious working budget (comparable to that of other EU Special Representatives), and institutional authority.
- Guarantee sufficient capacity. Financial and human resources would need to be allocated to effectively monitor freedom of religion or belief in third countries. The position needs to be able to conduct regular country visits, make religious freedom-related proposals within the European External Action Service (the EU’s diplomatic service) and, most importantly, issue concrete recommendations and policy actions.
- Affirm diplomatic credibility. The position should be given the necessary standing and political weight to be able to engage in regular high-level dialogues with political decision makers, and officials at embassies, consulates, and EU missions.
This would be at last a serious effort to mainstream the concern of religious freedom, implement the Guidelines, and live up to what the EU aspires to be: a champion on the protection of human rights in the world.ADF International