By Katrina Swett and Mary Ann Glendon
June 18 2014
In the Geneva meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that began on June 10 and runs through June 27 are a number of member states which continue to perpetrate or tolerate serious violations of human rights, including religious freedom.
Like some of its older members, five of its 13 new states this year — China, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Cuba, and Russia — have been cited by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, for failing to respect or protect this liberty. Their behaviour contradicts the Council’s mission of promoting and protecting fundamental rights, including religious freedom. The world community should spotlight this incongruity and support accountability and change.
The United States has rightly designated two new members — China and Saudi Arabia — “countries of particular concern” or CPCs, under the International Religious Freedom Act, ranking them as severe violators. In its annual report, released on April 30, USCIRF recommended, as it has for years, that Vietnam also be named a CPC, and noted significant violations in Cuba and Russia.
Religious freedom conditions in China have continued to deteriorate, particularly for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims. To inhibit the growth of independent Catholic and Protestant groups, the government has arrested leaders, shuttered churches and selected Catholic bishops without Vatican approval. The Falun Gong and other groups deemed “evil cults” face long-term imprisonments, forced renunciations of faith and torture in detention.
Saudi Arabia still restricts public expression of any religion besides Islam, allowing no non-Muslim houses of worship. Favouring its own interpretation of Sunni Islam, the government arrests and detains Shi’a dissidents and imprisons individuals for apostasy, blasphemy and sorcery.
Vietnam imprisons individuals for religious activity or religious freedom advocacy. Its specialized religious police force and vague national security laws suppress independent Buddhist, Protestant, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai activities. It seeks to halt the growth of ethnic minority Protestantism and Catholicism through discrimination, violence and forced renunciations of faith.
Religious freedom remains a concern in Cuba, despite some improvements for government-approved religious groups, with increased government control over the internal structures of religious communities and pressure to prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.
In Russia, freedom of religion or belief has suffered setbacks along with other human rights. Broad extremism laws are deployed against certain Muslim groups and “non-traditional” religious communities, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses. Members also experience raids, detentions and imprisonment. Various laws and practices increasingly grant preferential status to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in ways that are inconsistent with religious freedom.
These five new UNHRC members join a Council that already includes other violators.
One example is Pakistan, which we’re recommending again for CPC designation due to its failure to protect Shi’a, Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus from violence and its blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws, which foster a climate of impunity.
Another such nation is India, which, despite being a pluralistic electoral democracy, fails to protect religious freedom. While not rising to the level of CPC violator, India’s government has yet to achieve full justice for past communal violence against Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. Further, state-adopted anti-conversion laws fuel intimidation, harassment and violence against Christians and Muslims.
Yet another UNHRC nation with a problematic religious freedom record is Kazakhstan, which rigorously enforces its religion law against unregistered religious activity through police raids, major fines and even psychiatric detention, echoing its Soviet past.
And there is Indonesia, where “religiously deviant” people are arrested and federal and provincial officials fail to counter extremist violence.
For those abused on account of their faith, nothing could be more demoralizing than failing to hold violators responsible. Their presence on the UNHRC makes a mockery of its mission and these states can use the council to oppose the kinds of human rights resolutions that normally would address their misconduct.
Until these nations show signs of genuine progress on human rights, including religious freedom, their UNHRC presence sends an unfortunate message to both friends and foes of freedom. It makes the role of the United States and other supporters of human rights and religious freedom all the more pivotal, not only to address these violations but to stand as witness to them, providing strength and hope to the oppressed.
Katrina Lantos Swett is vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Mary Ann Glendon is a USCIRF commissioner.