Religious Liberty: Concern and Opportunity for Action


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

18 Jul 2020 – In an earlier TMS issue, I highlighted two avenues for informing on questions of religious liberty. The one is the United Nations Human Rights Council and its Special Rapporteur on Discrimination based on Religion or Belief.  The great bulk of the information provided comes from non-governmental organizations (NGO) in consultative status.  Some of these NGOs are religious and tend to provide information concerning their faith.  Others are broader human rights or peace organizations, often working in specific parts of the world.  The U.N. Special Rapporteur can contact the authorities of the State in question for additional information. He also makes a report to the Council but has little follow-up possibilities.

A second avenue of information is the U.S. State Department and its International Religious Freedom Report which contains information from U.S. diplomats in a country, press reports, NGOs, and contacts with religious organizations. The State Department has a larger staff working on religious liberty than does the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.  However, the U.S. report can be colored by other foreign policy issues.  Saudi Arabia can buy arms from the USA while Iran cannot although both countries have a narrow religious-based ideology.

The information provided to the United Nations and that collected by the U.S. State Department is roughly the same.  There are few surprises or discoveries of unknown situations. The question that faces us as peace builders is what the opportunities for creative and positive action are.

NGOs, such as the Association of World Citizens, have long been concerned with the armed conflicts in Burma aka Myanmar.  There has always been a religious dimension to the conflicts over the degree of autonomy or the creation of separate, independent States.  Much of the earlier autonomy movements were led by Christians.  Thus, when the Rohingya conflict arose and the flight of the largely Muslim Rohingya to Bangladesh NGOs were quick to sound the cries of alarm.  There have been repeated calls for compromise, but little response from the Myanmar government.  The conditions of the Rohingya in Bangladesh are poor and unstable.  The possibility of return to Myanmar is unlikely.

Likewise, religious liberty in China was raised in the U.N. by NGOs well before the issue became a focus of U.S. policy.  The fate of the Buddhist practice of the Tibetans had been highlighted as well as later the Fulun Gong movement. The conditions of the largely Muslim Uyghurs were stressed by journalists before being taken up by governments.

The Baha’i have active U.N. offices in both New York and Geneva that have stressed the repression in Iran and more recently in parts of Yemen.

Although African NGOs are relatively weak or absent from the U.N. human rights bodies in Geneva, the issues in Sudan, especially Darfur, and later in what became South Sudan have been raised.

Religious issues in Iraq, especially the Yazidi, have been raised as part of the consequences of the armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Likewise, the religious liberty issues in North Korea have been highlighted but overshadowed by the nuclear and military tensions.

If there are no new discoveries of situations in the U.N. or U.S. reports, the question remains: what can we do? There are always improvements that NGOs can make in their analysis of a situation. However, there is not much evidence that government policy is modified by the quality of analysis.

There is always the hope that more widespread information will produce faster results.  The internet and internet journalism is growing.  It is difficult to measure its impact except in cases with radical changes.  However, radical changes have multiple causes and internet use is only one of them.

Today, there is greater use of Track II diplomacy–meetings among relevant people on all sides of a conflict to see what issues might be negotiated. Religious and spiritual bodies have the resources for such Track II efforts. My impression is that they could do more.

We must be alert to new possibilities for positive action and to be able to move relatively quickly when there is an opportunity for action.


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Jul 2020.

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