Multinational Efforts to Advance Religious Freedom for All

Participants pose for a photo after the Department of State hosted a meeting of the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief (ICG) [State Department Photo].
Participants pose for a photo after the Department of State hosted a meeting of the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief (ICG) [State Department Photo].
Last month the Department of State hosted a meeting of the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief (ICG). The Contact Group was launched last June as a network of likeminded governments that fully support an individual’s right to freedom of religion or belief, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Canada and the United States worked collaboratively to form the ICG in response to rising restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief occurring worldwide, and out of our shared values supporting this fundamental freedom. Religious freedom at its core is about freedom of conscience, the ability of individuals to hold the belief of their choice, to change faiths, or to hold no faith all. It includes the ability of individuals to worship alone or in community with others, to educate children, and to share the faith through teaching and other communication. It is a capacious right, one that is strongly linked with other fundamental freedoms like peaceful assembly and expression. But its exercise is under attack by some governments and non-state actors.

In response to global challenges to these rights, the Contact Group has been active in a number of ways, generally using the tools of diplomacy behind the scenes. For instance, ICG members have traveled together to highlight shared concerns in particular countries. They have also undertaken joint diplomatic actions (known as “demarches”) in which officials from a group of countries all approach diplomats from a particular country of concern to encourage that government to address a problem. In addition, ICG members have worked through multilateral venues including the UN General Assembly and at the UN Human Rights Council to highlight issues of shared interest. Participating states have also used the ICG as a venue to share information about grants and other assistance projects aimed to advance respect for religious freedom, so as to help ensure that these efforts are complementary and not duplicative. The ICG has developed alongside the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, a parallel effort to network like minded Members of Parliament from around the world who support religious freedom for all.

Sixteen countries attended the May 20 meeting of the Contact Group, as did as a representative of the European Union’s Mission to the United States. The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein, chaired the meeting, along with me and Andrew Bennett, the former Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom. In recognition of Ambassador Bennett’s work to establish the group and for his advocacy on religious freedom issues, Ambassador Saperstein presented Bennett with a certificate of appreciation.

The meeting focused on ways to make ICG activities less ad hoc and more frequent. Participants discussed possible areas of cooperation, including where joint action could help encourage governments to take needed reforms. I also shared about our plans to convene a meeting in late July with international partners on ways the international community can assist religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. In addition, a representative of the State Department’s human rights bureau briefed participants about ways the United States uses foreign assistance to advance respect for freedom of religion or belief.

It is encouraging that so many nations were represented to discuss ways to promote and protect religious freedom. The need for such action cannot be overstated. Both governments and non-state actors continue to mistreat individuals for what they believe or for their perceived membership in a particular faith community. While the United States has been -– and will continue to be –- a leader in promoting freedom of religion or belief, we cannot do it alone. Working in coalition with likeminded countries allows for the delivery of stronger messages of concern that are harder for oppressive governments to ignore. And at a time when terrorist syndicates commit horrific atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities, we must be similarly networked across regions and political systems to help ensure rights are respected. The International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief is an important step in that direction.

About the Author: Knox Thames serves as the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

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