Embracing the Other: FoRB in Art

Art has many functions and aspects—aesthetic, spiritual, political, entertainment—but a common element the power of art to express concepts, to invite dialogue, and sometimes to speak truth to power. A powerful example of art’s dialogical and truth-representative function has recently been on display at a mosque in Bangladesh. It was a photography exhibit by Bangldeshi artist Shahidul Alam, titled ‘Embracing the Other’, intended to combat Islamophobia and extremism.

A mosque would seem an unlikely place for a photography exhibit, given Islamic prohibitions on representation of human and animal forms in arts. But Alam aims to challenge these prohibitions. Alam is not only an artist, but also a writer, human rights and democracy defender, social activist and curator of ideas and images. Among other accomplishments, he has been instrumental in setting up Bangladesh’s first picture agency, first photography school, and first webzine, as we as the Banglarights human rights information portal. He describes his work as creating a “world where we can daily sense our conscience and our faith in the planet.

These are not easy tasks, considering some of the problems that have recently beset Bangladesh in the area of human rights, particularly FoRB. The chapter on Bangladesh in the recently released 2017 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), for example, notes an increase in violent and deadly attacks against religious minorities, secular bloggers, intellectuals and foreigners by domestic and transnational groups. Some of these, such as the recent attacks on atheist and LGBT activists and secular bloggers who criticised Islam and the terrorist attack on the Holey Artisan bakery in Dhaka have made international headlines.

Amidst this intense climate around issues of human rights, FoRB, and freedom of expression, Alam seeks to capitalise, in this mosque exhibit, on the way in which mosques, like art, have filled a number of functions in the Islamic tradition. As the description of an online collection of photographs from the exhibit attests:

The first urban element introduced by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to the city of Madinah was the mosque, which functioned as a community development centre. It was used as a centre for religious activities, for learning, the seat of the Prophet’s government, a welfare and charity centre, a detention and rehabilitation centre, a place for medical treatment and nursing, and a place for leisure activities. The Prophet is known to have permitted women to sleep in the mosque, and for non-Muslims to pray there.

This variety of uses of the mosque suggests that the mosque was not only a religious space, but a place of cultural interaction, exchange, and dialogue—with a notable nod to gender equality and religious tolerance, as well. Indeed, Alam remarks, ‘It is this openness and the ability to reach out to the other, that appears to be missing today, in everyday life and in the mosque’.

Ongoing CIFoRB academic research and Parliamentary networking activities are also showing a strong sense in Bangladesh that fora like Shahidul Alam’s ‘Embracing the Other’ exhibit are just the kind of cultural space that Bangladeshis are seeking for dialogue on matters of human rights and FoRB. For example, some of the recent attacks on secular and atheists bloggers, as well as academics, foreigners and others seen to be ‘secular’ in orientation has stemmed from confusion over the nature of what secularism is—and this in a country that self-describes as ‘secular’ in the preamble and freedom of religion provisions of its very Constitution. Future CIFoRB posts will examine some of these meanings of secularism around the Commonwealth. But in Bangladesh the recent attacks on secular bloggers seem to have been grounded in an idea that secularism means a form of atheism that is hostile to the faith of the nation’s 90% Sunni Muslim majority.

On that note, it might be wondered why there need be an art exhibit to combat Islamophobia and extremism in a nation where Muslims are the majority. With this focus, Shahidul Alam clearly seeks, working from within the Islamic tradition itself, to show how some of the openness within the Islamic tradition might be directed toward creating broader social openness. As he puts it,

It is the stereotypical representation of Islam and Muslims that has fuelled Islamophobia. . .What I want to do through this work is to establish that Islam (and pretty much all religions) by and large, provides a moral compass for our navigation. There are large magnets around that have changed the direction of our compass. I want to return to the original direction and to remind people that it is the carriers of these magnets both within, and outside, whom we need to challenge.

Shahidul Alam’s use of cultural space to promote dialogue on FoRB, human rights, and Bangladesh’s national identity in pursuit of these goals is an especially exemplary and creative one that bears close observation for the lessons it conveys about how artists can be instrumental in promoting discourses of peacebuilding and embrace of the other, within their own borders and within the Commonwealth’s vast expanse.


Words Of Caution On Freedom Of Religion Or Belief

Andrew Copson

Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association

As a humanist I very much defend, uphold and rely on the human right to freedom of religion or belief. I do, however, want to offer a few words of caution as well.

Let’s not be naive about freedom of religion or belief. Any concept is susceptible to distortion. There are deviations from the concept of ‘democracy’ that only superficially resemble democracy, there are degenerate forms of ‘secularism’ and ‘science’ and so on. This field is not immune. Degenerate kinds of freedom of religion or belief may in fact detract from the realization of actual freedom of religion or belief, and hinder the good functioning of societies.

The outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, warned at the launch of the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Freedom of Thought Report’s last year that ‘the term “freedom of religion or belief” was only a kind of shorthand. The full human right was ‘freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”‘.

He subsequently told the IHEU:

‘In all my reports (country-specific or thematic) I quote General Comment no. 22 which clarifies that article 18 of the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.’

And here we get onto what I consider a degenerate form of FORB. Bielefeldt said:

‘Formulations such as “religious freedom” obfuscate the scope of this human right which covers the identity-shaping, profound convictions and conviction-based practices of human beings broadly.’

So in the words of the Special Rapporteur, FORB is only a shorthand. We’re diminishing the scope of this human right already by leaving out ‘freedom of thought’ and ‘conscience’. But that further redaction to ‘religious freedom’ – while sometimes it may come from a simple desire for brevity – is particularly egregious, in my view. And it has led to a kind of ‘religious freedom’ as demand, wherein the right to ‘religious freedom’ is elevated to a kind of privilege over others, or privilege for particular groups, a demand of ‘group rights’ (as opposed to individual rights). This degenerate form of FORB, the ‘religious freedom’ as privilege, is not supported by the human rights framework, and in fact often quite clearly threatens the upholding of the rights of others.

I think this has particular relevance at the current time, when many countries are demographically secularizing, and debates about the demands that can be mandated by ‘religious freedom’ frequently make headline news. Indeed the United States is one of the countries where this contrast between FORB-as-human-right and ‘religious freedom’ as privilege is most stark. The constitutional protection of religious liberty in the US constitution is largely very clear and very close to the modern FORB-as-human-right. And yet ‘religious freedom’ is widely and mistakenly being used as an excuse to demand privileges, to deny services, or to discriminate (usually against women and sexual minorities, sometimes against children, against the non-religious, or along racial lines). A recent report by the US Commission on Civil Rights on ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ between nondiscrimination principles and civil liberties, recognised this degenerate version of FORB as the weaponization of ‘religious freedom’. I think it’s worth learning from the US, the western country where this bipolarization of FORB and its degenerate cousin ‘religious freedom’ as privilege is perhaps most profound. That report concludes:

‘The phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance… Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others. However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality.’

I do not ask for agreement on every debate around the domain of “freedom of religion or belief”, but I do hope there is a recognition of the existence of a degenerate form of FORB, which fails to uphold non-discrimination and fails to respect the rights of others.

I think this delineation of FORB and “religious freedom” as privilege also has relevance to the topic of radicalization and terrorism. One of the reasons that people sometimes object to FORB is that, on a naive reading, it implies that would be terrorists must be allowed to radicalize from every platform, or that every extremist should be able to inflect their values on the people around them. That mistaken reading of FORB seems, to me, to stem from the very same root as the “religious freedom” as privilege form which demands the right to exclude gay people or deny access to family planning or to demand legal exemptions, and so on. If FORB is properly understood, as an individual human right as conceived under the international human rights framework, including the guidance on where the right to manifest religion or belief should be limited, then the objection to FORB that outright hateful and violent manifestations must be protected falls away.

I believe we should all then, encourage our national governments to recognise the degenerate form of “religious freedom” that demands privileges and inflicts discrimination, and to disown it; and instead to uphold FORB – more properly: the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief – as one human right, which can be consistently upheld for all.

CIFoRB continues the momentum of International Women’s Day. Celebrating Women and the Freedom of Religion or Belief

Does freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) have particular implications for women? As it turns out, the answer is yes—and given all the celebrations for International Women’s Day earlier this week, it is worth considering them.

Much has been written about the inequalities that women experience under fundamentalist versions of religion, which are often premised on gender hierarchy and strict gender roles. There are shelves of books about women’s fate in the Muslim world, for instance, but these often have an exotic flavor that may work against Muslim women’s actual interests. Some scholars who specialise in the study of Muslim women describe systems of “antisexist patriarchy” in political postures that purport to liberate women from forces in their society that may seem oppressive to those outside them, prompting them to ask, “Do Muslim women need saving?” The same goes for women in fundamentalist Christian societies, whereby women are seen as subjects of a system rather than agents in control of their lives.

Some of the concerns about women and religion may, indeed, have paternalistic or chivalric elements that profess to serve women’s interests, while doing little to address underlying social, economic, and political factors that may be more of a problem for women than religion. And those who presume to save women from their faith often fail to understand the ways in which even traditional and conservative forms of religion can be sources not just of women’s vulnerability, but also women’s agency and  activism in support of FoRB.

After all, it is often women who fill worship houses and who do the crucial work of religion, administering such social services as education, health, and community sustenance around the world. These activities may be equally important—perhaps more important—than devising doctrine or merely professing the faith. But when it comes to doctrine and belief, religious feminists in every tradition are often among the leaders, engaged as scholars of religion in developing “hermeneutical circles” in which to reinterpret, reframe, and reform religion. Even so, the importance of FoRB for women as religious agents, who must sometimes resist and reshape their religion cannot be underestimated.

Nonetheless, paternalistic, and perhaps patriarchal, invocations of women’s religious freedom continue to be heard around the world—including parts of the Commonwealth. A recent news report from an Evangelical Christian newspaper in India begins with the sensationalistic headline, “Violence against women is increasingly being used as a tool of persecution in India.” On closer inspection, the article contains scant attention to women themselves, other than suggesting that women and children are being arrested for their Christian faith. Another recent article from neighbouring Pakistan has a nearly identical title and makes similar claims about the susceptibility of Ahmadi and Hindu women and children to religious persecution. So, claims of women’s oppression can still be used to bolster a range of political and religious programmes.

But even as claims of women’s oppression continue to be used for various purposes, we must keep an eye out for what CIFoRB principal Monica Duffy Toft, identifies as the real threat that religious fundamentalisms pose for women’s freedom and women’s lives. As Toft observes, in some spots around the world “fundamentalist religious movements mobilise the very forces that should have been expected to safeguard women: globalisation, secularisation, and democracy.”

Religions may deem women to be the problem and women may deem religion to be the problem. But what cannot be denied is how problematic it can become, when gender becomes a tool or weapon against women in service of any number of political agendas.  With this in mind, Toft notes, “As women’s equality has advanced, a clash has developed within societies whereby fundamentalists attempt to reassert more traditional gendered roles…. It is likely no accident therefore, that religious fundamentalism has expanded in tandem with women’s equality.”

CIFoRB stands with women around the world and around the Commonwealth—women with religion and women without religion—to draw attention to the importance of FoRB for women’s agency, women’s lives, and women’s human rights.

The Many Meanings of FoRB: A Glossary

One of the characteristic features of discussions of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is the variety of terms used to describe the concept itself—as well as the set of rights that it includes. To begin to address what FoRB means in various contexts and countries around the Commonwealth and beyond, we propose the following definitions, with the knowledge that these are continually being reinterpreted and refined in both domestic and international contexts.

FoRB—Freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is the concept that we have taken as our guiding framework at CIFoRB. It is grounded in the fundamental right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” expressed in Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and reaffirmed in subsequent international declarations. FoRB is also reflected in the office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The acronym FoRB has seen increasing use, particularly, in U.K. and European parliamentary discussions and associated organisations. See, for example, the European Union Intergroup on FoRB and Religious Tolerance (EUFoRB) and the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB). In the U.K., these concerns are the purview of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (Freedom Declared APPG), alongside the Commonwealth Initiative on Freedom of Religion or Belief (CIFoRB).

But far from being limited to the U.K. and Europe, variations on the Article 18 formulation of FoRB are reflected in constitutions around the world, including many parts of the Commonwealth. The Constitution of Belize (art. III,11) protects ‘freedom of conscience, including freedom of thought and of religion’. The Constitution of Nigeria (art. 38) secures ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’. While the Constitution of India proclaims the country to be a ‘sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’ (preamble), it also protects ‘freedom of religion’ (art. 25), or more specifically ‘freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’. While designating Islam to be the religion of the Federation (art. 3) the Federal Constitution of Malaysia’s main provision on ‘freedom of religion’ (art. 11) specifically protects the rights to ‘profess’, ‘practise’ and ‘propagate’ religion. The Constitution of Pakistan uses nearly the same ‘profess, practise and propagate’ as Malaysia in its key provision on ‘freedom to profess religion and manage religious institution’ (art. 20), significantly subjecting the freedom to ‘law, public order and morality’.

In addition to having widespread support in international law and constitutions throughout the Commonwealth, the FoRB formula has the advantage of recognising the thought and conscience rights of non-religious, humanist, and secular belief systems—the “nones” of the FoRB landscape, which are also said to be increasing globally. FoRB rights are thus not “religious rights” or “rights of the religious” but include a range of moral, ethical, and philosophical commitments. The progressive Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (art. 15), takes the non-religious protection of FoRB a term further, in protecting ‘freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion’ in its bill of rights.


Religious Freedom—Religious freedom has been the standard term for FoRB particularly in the United States, and it is represented in the names of U.S. government bodies and legislation—most notably the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF) in the Department of State. Both IRF bodies were created by the International Religious Freedom Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998. Within the Commonwealth,  from 2013 to 2016, Canada also had an Office of Religious Freedom.


The religious freedom framework in the U.S. is set forth in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which proclaims that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Establishment Clause in that formulation inveighs against state religion or state endorsement of and entanglement with religion. The Free Exercise Clause protects the variety of ways in which religion is manifested and practiced. In 1993, the U.S. Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), intended to refine and enhance religious freedom protections.


Religious Liberty—Alongside the term “religious freedom,” the term “religious liberty” is historically and increasingly heard in the U.S. context. In one sense, this reflects the dual mandate of the First Amendment religion clauses to protect the free exercise of religion and to protect both religious and non-religious individuals and organization from any interference by the state that would tend to endorse religion or establish a state religion. In the U.S., there is  a longstanding historical background in the difference of emphasis between the ‘religious freedom’ pronouncements of Thomas Jefferson and the somewhat greater emphasis on ‘religious liberty’ in the language of James Madison—two early American presidents whose writings on religious freedom were particularly influential. A recent hearing of the House Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Congress on ‘The State of Religious Liberty in America’ conveys a sense of how the term is being used.


Within the Commonwealth, the Constitution of Ghana (art. 21(1), with some other West African nations, closely follows the formula of the U.S. First Amendment protections of speech, expression, assembly and association—notably also protecting academic freedom and a right to information. It does not containing a clause on state establishment of religion, it protects ‘freedom of thought, conscience and belief’’ and ‘freedom to practise any religion and to manifest such practice’. The term ‘liberty’, however, is only used twice in the Ghanaian Constitution and in connection with personal liberty from unlawful criminal prosecution (art. 14(1)).  In fact, ‘liberty’ tends to be used in this way throughout much of the world to describe the bodily liberty of the individual vis-à-vis the state in a human rights sense—with religion, expression association and related rights falling more into the category of fundamental ‘freedoms’.


Freedom of Conscience—As is evident in the debate over ‘religious freedom’ and ‘religious liberty’ in places like the U.S., there can be differences of emphasis depending on whether one’s claim is for a positive right to free exercise of religion (religious freedom) or a negative right from interference by the state (religious liberty). And yet, as we have seen in the select survey of Commonwealth constitutions, variations on the Article 18 protection of ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief.


But ‘conscience’ also has another, more specialised meaning in the FoRB arena.  Specifically, recent debates over perennially fraught issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality, in the U.K., Australia and other parts of the Commonwealth, have raised questions of ‘conscience’ in new and robust ways that have as much to do with rights of groups as the rights of individuals. In the U.S., ‘religious liberty’ debates  have centered on whether religions and religious groups, in a corporate sense (as in the U.S. Hobby Lobby case), have a right to religious liberty from laws to do with contraception and same-sex marriage. In the Commonwealth, Australia has also grappled with this question of corporate conscience right in its recent parliamentary debates over same sex marriage.


But in a broader sense, both globally and across the Commonwealth, conscience arguments have adhered more to the more internationally accepted Article 18 sense of the term, hinging on the importance of non-coercion by the state or other actors. At times, conscience has been the clarion call of progressive dissidents even within religious faiths. Globally, it is also often tied to questions of apostasy, blasphemy, and conversion, issues which raise particular questions about intra-religious diversity and the permissibility of people diverging from or leaving faith, speaking critically of religion, and in some cases opting to convert to other religions, all of which are significant FoRB issues today.


Freedom of Religion, Religious Rights, Rights of God—The term “freedom of religion” is often interchangeable with “religious freedom” in global contexts. However, it is also has a significant association with Islamic declarations on these rights, as understood in parts of the Muslim world. For example, the key provision on “right to freedom of religion” in the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1981 by the Islamic Councils of Paris and London states: “Every person has the right to freedom of conscience and worship in accordance with his religious beliefs.” Other provisions of the Islamic Declaration protect “religious beliefs” and “religious feelings” from offence and ridicule. The Qur’anic declaration that there can be “no compulsion in religion” protects the “religious rights” of non-Muslims in Islamic states. Rights to equality and nondiscrimination, and to asylum, association and conduct of family life are also connected to and protected on the basis of religious belief. Even so, how far these “religious rights” or “rights of God” extend to nonbelievers or those of different belief within a religious tradition remain contested. Subsequent Islamic rights statements, such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference’s 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, and the League of Arab States’ 2004 Arab Charter on Human Rights show similar linkages between rights and religion.


This is a brief summary of concepts and terminology that are in routine use in discussions of FoRB, but these terms are far from static, and instead subject to constant contestation and evolution in global human rights discussions over FoRB and the nature and scope of the rights to which FoRB gives rise.

Article 18: The Importance of FoRB in International Law

The importance of freedom of religious or belief (FoRB) protections, as expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is not widely understood outside academic and legal circles. There are a sizeable number of organisations endeavouring to change this, but for Article 18  to be fully understood, it must be reinterpreted and reaffirmed in every generation across all societies.

The Universal Declaration, with its Article 18 provision for FoRB, goes back to the document’s drafting in 1948, as a strong statement for FoRB in the post-Holocaust and post-World War II world.  Article 18 states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This commitment to FoRB, while not uncontroversial at the time of the UDHR, laid the foundation for FoRB rights in international law in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Language nearly identical to Article 18 of the UDHR was adopted as the first portion of a more elaborate guarantee of FoRB, reaffirmed in 1966 in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which stated:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

To the original freedoms to have and to manifest FoRB contained in UDHR Article 18, the ICCPR Article 18 thus added protections from coercion, the possibility of limitations in instances where FoRB might conflict with the rights of others, and a provision on the liberty of parents to educate their children in religious matters.

Article 18, in both the UDHR and ICCPR formulations, affords wide-ranging protections to ‘freedom of thought, conscience, and religion’. They thus protect not only religion, but a range of other beliefs, as well as the right not to subscribe to religious beliefs at all. Article 18 includes not only private belief, worship and practice, but also the public expression of belief in civil society and the public sphere. This public dimension of Article 18 inextricably links FoRB rights to related rights of speech, expression, assembly, association and education. These many dimensions of FoRB received further expression in the U.N. General Assembly’s 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. This ‘Religion Declaration’ is the highest-level U.N. statement specifically on FoRB. Article 18 is increasingly seen as not only a right of individuals, but also a collective right of religious communities and religious groups, particularly since the General Assembly’s 1992  Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which has come to be seen as a strong statement of rights on the basis of group identity, alongside the many guarantees of individual human rights in international law.

When understood as ‘religious freedom’ or ‘freedom of religion’, FoRB can give the impression of being about ‘religious rights’ or ‘rights for the religious’. Article 18 has been broadly conceived as including a range of religious and non-religious beliefs. It is, indeed, the case in religiously pluralistic societies that differing beliefs can lead to conflict, discrimination and even outright religious persecution by and among religious groups. But the world’s religions are not only powerful sources of human rights in and of themselves, they also bring resources for transforming conflict and securing peace and social development.

Different societies, at times, may be at different places when it comes to freedom of religion or belief. Nowadays, international human rights doctrine affords what is known as a ‘margin of appreciation’—deference to national context and other factors–when it comes to recognising the efforts that nations make toward human rights realisation.  This can vary from society to society. Societies may also differ in their understanding of the relation between FoRB and other rights to speech, expression, and relations between social groups in pluralistic societies. We will be addressing some of these interrelations in subsequent posts.

Protecting civil society against shrinking spaces

By Prof Sir Malcolm Evans, Chair of CIFoRB Advisory Committee, Professor of Public International Law (University of Bristol Law School) and Chair, United Nations Subcommittee for Prevention of Torture.

 On Thursday 26th January a debate took place in Parliament* on the ‘shrinking space for civil society’ in international human rights protection. I was recently at a meeting where it was pointed out that this description of the problem – which is much discussed in international circles at the moment – made it sound vaguely as if it was something to do with washing things at the wrong temperature, and meant very little to most people. To the extent that effective human rights protection is based on openness and transparency, which might be summed up in the idea of ‘washing dirty linen in public’, the idea of human rights being ‘shrunk in the wash’ at the moment is not altogether a bad one – but this hardly helps convey the significance of what is taking place and why it matters enough to warrant a debate in Parliament. The reality is that there is something extremely worrying going on in many parts of the world – which is that those who stand up for those in need are themselves increasingly subjected to various forms of attack, including physical attack, for doing so.

This is not just about problems faced by ‘Civil Society’, or ‘NGOs’ working on issues of rights protection – though members of such bodies are indeed subject to vicious and violent assault. It is also about those who have a public duty to question governmental authorities about their conduct and decision-making, including Ombudsman’s offices, National Human Rights Commissions, public defenders. When those with official responsibility for ensuring that governmental action stays within the boundaries of the law find themselves under attack simply for doing the job they have been appointed to do – such as acting Attorney-General of in the US, how much more likely is that that those seeking to raise concerns about others who do not have official positions will find themselves in trouble?  And trouble comes in many forms. Physical violence, the closure of organisations and other forms of legal crackdowns may get reported, but subtle changes to domestic laws and endless spurious administrative challenges can make it increasingly difficult – if not impossible – for such bodies to operate, to receive funds, to publish materials, to hold meetings, to raise concerns; these are rarely newsworthy, and often at least as effective. And even when they are able to operate, their work is more frequently side-lined or ignored.

Why is this happening? It seems to me that one reason is the increasing scepticism which ‘human rights’ seems to produce. Rather than defending something of value, human rights are increasingly projected as a negative rather than as a positive thing – something that can be used by people with nothing better to do to try to stop sensible people doing sensible things: something which is a bit of an irritant, an annoyance that we pay lip-service to but only because we have to. If you can afford to think like this – congratulations, you have won first prize in the lottery of life. It is not like that for many.

In my work as Chair of the UN Subcommittee for Prevention of Torture I routinely see quite enough to know that far too many people far too often are in desperate need of others to support and speak up for them. Unthinking systems, and unthinking individuals, can end up treating people appallingly. In my work, one of the most remarkable and humbling things I have seen is how people living together in some of the most appalling circumstances imaginable (and, I sincerely hope, for most readers, unimaginable circumstances) manage to survive. They survive by supporting each other. They may not even want to – but in the end they do. In desperate situations, most people help each other as best they can.  I have also seen how suggesting that some very small changes be made to the way things are done can have a huge impact for good, sometimes at little or no cost at all. Sometimes, all it takes is for something to be said in order that the difference be made.

And that is what is so worrying about the ‘shrinking space for civil society’. It is about making it harder and harder to let people support each other and to help make those changes for the better. It means that the problems people have to be facing need to become ever greater before they can be recognise and responded to. It also makes it more likely that unless (until?) we share in those problems, we may not be willing to recognise or respond to them at all. Remember ‘Je suis Charlie’? It was a very revealing slogan: if it is us, if we identify with a problem, we address it.

Having such a debate in Parliament was hugely important. It may seem to be dealing with an issue which affects other people in other places in a rather strange and esoteric way. It does not. It is about our willingness to support people who seek to help others. No more, no less. But there is another point too. ‘Civil Society’ has increasingly become the expression used to refer to the community of traditional non-governmental organisations, which continues to exist and which continue to do a great deal of vital work. However, the world is changed. People no longer ‘mobilise’ through organisations in the same way. We respond, perhaps, more intuitively and immediately through social media and in other ways, supporting many different causes and issues on a passing basis, but none the less sincerely for that. In case we had not noticed, we have all become civil society today, seeking to comment on political and social affairs as they happen and wherever it interests and concerns us. It is the pressure of people seeking change. There seems to have been a lot of that recently. We need to make sure that we, who are all now civil society, continue to protect our space and those who use that space in order to help each other have better lives. Which for the avoidance of doubt is what human rights are all about, actually.

The debate in Parliament held on Thurs 26th Jan was promoted by CIFoRB with the cooperation of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief (FreedomDeclared). At the same time, on the same day, the House of Lords was also debating the UK/UN relationship in light of the appointment of the new Secretary General. Baroness Berridge was speaking in this debate. Please see the full transcript of the House of Lords debate in the features section on the front of the CIFoRB website. The full transcript of the civil society debate can be found in Research section of the CIFoRB website

CIFoRB’s First Year: A Full Calendar of Activities

The CIFoRB team has participated in numerous academic and parliamentary conferences on the importance of FoRB for the Commonwealth and how parliamentarians can effectively support FoRB in national and international contexts. Key events in the project’s first year have included:

NOVEMBER 2015: From 27-29 November, members of the CIFoRB project, led by project director Baroness Elizabeth Berridge,  attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta. The meeting was a crucial opportunity for CIFoRB to introduce itself and its resources to Commonwealth leaders. CIFoRB contributions to the meeting were detailed in an article in The Parliamentarian, titled  ‘Reaching Out at CHOGM: Launching the Commonwealth Initiative on Freedom of Religion or Belief’ and mention in a Commonwealth VOICES article, titled ‘The 2016 Theme: The Inclusive Commonwealth.’

MAY 2016: On 1 May, an op/ed on recent polls of Muslims in Europe, written by CIFoRB affiliate scholar, Professor Jocelyne Cesari, was published in the openDemocracy online journal. On 5 May, CIFoRB Co-Director Dr Andrew Davies and CIFoRB Head of Research Harriet Hoffler delivered a paper titled ‘Adopting the Orphan: Towards an Appreciation of Freedom of Religion or Belief as a Religious, Political, and Legal Imperative’ at the Law and Religion Scholars Network (LARSN) annual conference at the Centre for Law and Religion at the Cardiff University School of Law and Politics.

From 15-18 May, Baroness Berridge attended the 46th British Islands and Mediterranean Region Annual Conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to make contact with parliamentarians in that region. On 23 May, Baroness Berridge focused on the human rights dimensions of FoRB in the annual Queen’s Speech debate.

JUNE 2016: CIFoRB Principal Investigator Monica Duffy Toft published an article in the June 2016 issue of the Institute for Public Policy Research journal Juncture, on the use of a networked response to combat networks of extremist violence.

SEPTEMBER 2016: On 8 September, Baroness Berridge spoke on behalf of CIFoRB at a debate on Article 18 at the U.K. Parliament. On the same day, CIFoRB Head of Research, Harriet Hoffler, spoke on Article 18 and human rights at the fourth conference of the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies (ICLARS) at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford.

On 14 September, the CIFoRB team delivered a focus group session for Commonwealth parliamentarians in Berlin, as part of the annual conference of the International Panel of Parliamentarians on Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) Parliamentarians attended the breakfast meeting to discuss FoRB issues within their countries, as well as ways to support parliamentarians in supporting FoRB rights as part of their countries’ progress toward achieving the goals of the Commonwealth Charter.

On 22 September, Baroness Berridge presented the innovative work undertaken by the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) at a workshop on “Religion and Religious Freedom in International Diplomacy” organized by then United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (and current CIFoRB advisory board member), Heiner Bielefeldt, in collaboration with the World Council of Churches, the EU delegation to the UN and the Finnish Ecumenical Council.

OCTOBER 2016: On 4 October, CIFoRB Head of Research, Harriet Hoffler, participated in a panel on ‘Religious Rights in a Pluralistic World: Commonwealth Initiative’ at an annual symposium convened by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies in Provo, Utah, USA. On 19-20 October, Baroness Berridge and members of the CIFoRB team attended a two-day Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) summit on how FoRB can help prevent violent extremism. The CIFoRB team also contributed to an FCO ‘toolkit’ report on how the FCO can help promote respect for FoRB..

On 27 October, Baroness Berridge spoke at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief in recognition of International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day. The meeting featured a screening of CIFoRB’s interview with EU Special Envoy Jan Figel. Baroness Berridge also contributed to a parliamentary debate the same day on the peace process in Cyprus, emphasising the need to engage religious leaders.

From 27-29 October, CIFoRB advisory board members, Heiner Bielefeldt and Nazila Ghanea, participated in a conference hosted by the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Professor Bielefeldt, a former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Relief, delivered the conference’s opening address. Professor Ghanea, an international human rights law scholar, participated in a panel of commentary on the newly drafted ‘Oslo Principles on Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief’. Professor Malcolm Evans, chair of the CIFoRB advisory board was also present and spoke on preventative approaches to FoRB.

NOVEMBER 2016: On 17 November, CIFoRB Principal Investigator Monica Duffy Toft delivered a Keele World Affairs lecture on ‘God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics’ at Keele University.

DECEMBER 2016: On 15 December, Baroness Berridge and members of the CIFoRB team convened a special session for parliamentarians to share their experiences around FoRB issues at the 62nd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference (CPC) in London. Baroness Berridge also spoke on a panel on FoRB rights.

Over the course of the next two years, the CIFoRB project looks forward to supporting parliamentarians around the Commonwealth with the best academic research and most effective strategies for speaking out on the crucial FoRB rights enshrined in Article 18.


CIFoRB celebrates its first year

Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), the fundamental right to have, choose, change and manifest one’s religion or belief, as enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), has perhaps never been more threatened than in today’s world. Authoritative academic analysis research evidences the substantial global decline in FoRB, but despite the efforts of existing international and diplomatic fora, a need remains for work to reverse this trend.

The Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief (CIFoRB) project responds to these trends by exploring the critical but under-investigated potential of parliamentarians of the Commonwealth’s 52 independent and equal sovereign states, home to 2.4 billion of the world’s citizens. The Commonwealth is a diverse, multi religious global family of nations, encompassing some of the best and worst practices when it comes to achieving FoRB rights internationally. The Commonwealth affords real opportunities to compare and assess these various states of FoRB realisation and to engage in targeted, sustainable activity to advance FoRB across member states and beyond.

The CIFoRB project, which commenced in July 2015 with a generous grant from The John Templeton Foundation, addresses the key question: How can parliamentarians be effectively equipped to make a significant contribution to reversing the global decline in freedom of religion or belief?

The premise of the project is simple, but transformative. We believe parliamentarians have a unique capacity and opportunity to work within and across national boundaries to promote FoRB rights as human rights and that they can become highly-effective agents of change. CIFoRB provides academic, policy and professional development for parliamentarians to increase the number, knowledge, profile and impact of parliamentarians, their senior advisors and staff across the Commonwealth. CIFoRB’s work will benefit citizens across the Commonwealth by researching and supporting effective parliamentary efforts on FoRB issues.

In this inaugural year, strides have been taken toward this goal. Parliamentary events and interventions have been accompanied by academic research and presentations supportive of CIFoRB’s goals. Among its various projects, the research team compiled an annotated bibliography of key academic research on FoRB issues, presented papers at academic conferences and published op/ed pieces in various media. The team also conducted interviews with high-level leaders and scholars on FoRB issues, including Jan Figel, the European Union’s Special Envoy on FoRB outside the EU, and Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on FoRB. The CIFoRB team have also convened parliamentary events and made presentations at parliamentary and academic meetings on FoRB issues.

CIFoRB also maintains a Twitter feed @ciforb_uob, chronicling project activities, academic and public policy reports and news items on FoRB issues throughout the Commonwealth of Nations—from Antigua to Zambia. The CIFoRB project blog will also report project activities and findings as well as more conceptual and reflective posts to further define FoRB—what it means and why it is important in today’s world.

CIFORB meets Commonwealth Parliamentarians

“The call to work together is more than defending the inherent human right to freedom of religion or belief but defending and protecting our humanity”. Commonwealth MP at CIFORB’s breakfast meeting.

Discussing Freedom of Religion or Belief over breakfast is not (always) the norm, but in Berlin on Wednesday CIFORB did just that. The breakfast meeting attracted a cross-section of MPs s from every region across the Commonwealth. The meeting introduced CIFORB and enabled a lively discussion about the Commonwealth and how this network can be utilised by parliamentarians to share experiences and action, making FoRB protection more effective and robust overall. There was determination and commitment of all commonwealth parliamentarians to engage with FoRB through the network of the Commonwealth and CIFORB.

The floor was given to the parliamentarians first to narrate their own perceptions of the commonwealth, its contemporary importance and how the commonwealth might best be used to help parliamentarians approach FoRB issues through the lens of their individual country structures. The parliamentarians also discussed the complex intersection of culture and religion, human rights and institutional capacity to best address FoRB. Many crucial observations came out of these discussions, providing a rich starting point for CiFORB to collaborate with and learn from these actions and experiences.

Following these discussions, all those attending were in agreement to become part of the newly created CiFORB Network of Commonwealth Parliamentarians. This network is a unique and innovative way to share experiences and ways forward for parliamentarians to effectively address FoRB from a Commonwealth perspective. In addition, it was agreed that regional sub-groupings of commonwealth parliamentarians to discuss issues more relevant to particular groupings of commonwealth countries, would be of great benefit to the overall network established.

Thank You

We would like to thank all the parliamentarians who responded to our invitation and joined us for such a vibrant exchange of ideas and experiences.


Do look out for further blog posts to follow that engage with the wider issues and research themes in FoRB and the Commonwealth that were raised within this breakfast meeting.



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