At a recent event in the U.K. House of Lords, British Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Lord Ahmad emphasized that “our biggest challenge is not when we stand up for our own rights and beliefs. The real test is when we stand up for the rights and beliefs of others.” This important message was part of his speech to mark the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief was established by the UN General Assembly earlier this year. The UN day is to be marked on August 22, a neutral date that is not associated with any specific event of violence based on religion or belief. The date may be neutral but the recent events of acts of violence based on religion or belief are proof in themselves that the day is not neutral but rather charged with acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and other mass atrocities perpetrated based on religion or belief.
Only in the last five years, we have witnessed two cases of genocide happening before our eyes. One perpetrated by Daesh in Syria and Iraq and one perpetrated by the Burmese military in Myanmar. In both cases religious minorities, whether Yazidis and Christians in Syria and Iraq or Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, were targeted for annihilation. In both cases, we acted too little and too late to prevent the atrocities from occurring.
Apart from these two examples of genocidal atrocities, there are several more examples of religious persecution (whether because of belonging to a particular religious group or because of not adhering to a particular religion or belief) that have not made the headlines or did not remain in the news long enough to be remembered and cared for. This includes the Uighur Muslims, Falun Gong and House Christians in China, Ahmadiyyas and Christians in Pakistan, Muslims and Christians in India, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Baha’is in Iran or Yemen. Persecution and acts of violence based on religion or belief can happen anywhere in the world, to any religious groups, especially minority groups, and especially when we turn a blind eye on such acts and allow impunity to flourish.
The resolution establishing the UN day makes some powerful messages that must be kept in mind in any actions aimed at addressing acts of violence based on religion or belief.
First, “all acts of violence against persons on the basis of their religion or belief, as well as any such acts directed against their homes, businesses, properties, schools, cultural centres or places of worship, as well as all attacks on and in religious places, sites and shrines that are in violation of international law” must be strongly deplored. Any such attacks cannot be justified, tolerated or overlooked/ignored.
Second, the existing legal regimes are adequate but we need to enhance their implementation to “protect individuals against discrimination and hate crimes, increasing interreligious, interfaith and intercultural efforts and expanding human rights education are important first steps in combating incidents of intolerance, discrimination and violence against individuals on the basis of religion or belief.”
Third, commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief means more than just raising awareness of the issue and working to prevent it in the future, It means “recognizing… the importance of providing victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief and members of their families with appropriate support and assistance in accordance with applicable law.”
Despite the UN day being designed around the phrase “acts of violence based on religion or belief”, the resolution goes a bit further and recognizes the issues pertaining religion or belief that do not reach the threshold of violence. Furthermore, the resolution emphasizes the intersectionality of freedom of religion or belief, and especially, within freedom of opinion and expression, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of association. They are “interdependent, interrelated and mutually reinforcing.” These rights are means by which one can manifest their right to freedom of religion or belief, and play an important role in “combating religious hatred, incitement and violence” and “strengthening democracy and combating religious intolerance.”
As the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief is only a few weeks old, a lot will have to happen to turn this day in the calendar into a meaningful one able to trigger action to address the issue of acts of violence based on religion or belief. In order for this to happen, everyone must play a part (not only the UN and States).
Last but not least, as Lord Ahmad correctly pointed out, “the real test is when we stand up for the rights and beliefs of others” not just for ourselves. So, on August 22, stand up for others who are targeted for their religion or belief. We need to recognize that everyone must be granted the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and other human rights. We must affirm that the right to freedom of religion or belief is paramount to human dignity for everyone everywhere.