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Rabat+5 Symposium on the follow-up to the Rabat Plan of Action, Rabat, 6-7 December 2017

Opening statement of Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

(as delivered in Rabat by Ibrahim Salama on 6 December 2017)

I warmly welcome you to this important and timely symposium concerning the follow-up to the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of incitement to hatred, and I wish to thank the Kingdom of Morocco for hosting this symposium.

When it was adopted five years ago, the Rabat Plan of Action was an audacious start in articulating the human rights responsibilities of a number of actors, but with a specific focus on religious leaders. This was a first shift that I would qualify as a move from general interfaith dialogues to a specific articulation of three core responsibilities: Religious leaders should refrain from using messages which may incite violence, they should speak out firmly and promptly against hate speech and they should be clear that violence cannot be justified by prior provocation.

When human rights are seen as opposed to religion and merely portrayed as a Western imposition, then terrorists and violent extremists cannot dream of a better environment to prosper. Inciting to violence in the name of religion is a sophisticated intellectual effort which involves distorting religious messages and recruiting, deceiving and exploiting people. This manipulative approach of violent extremists requires a thoughtful response, to which human rights provides essential grounds and tools.

The second shift in this direction started in March 2017, when the faith-based and civil society actors participating at our expert workshop in Beirut expanded the above-mentioned “Rabat responsibilities” to the full spectrum of human rights. The visionary Beirut Declaration and its 18 commitments on “Faith for Rights” of March 2017 are entirely dedicated to faith-based actors, who are defined in a wide manner to include theistic, non-theistic, atheistic or other believers.

The Beirut Declaration is not “yet another declaration” but rather a profound analysis of the conceptual premises of a new relationship between faith and rights. It is also not merely a theoretical clarification but is followed by the corresponding operative 18 commitments through which faith-based actors have articulated how “Faith” can stand up for “Rights” more effectively so that both enhance each other.

In my opening statement to the Beirut workshop I stressed that religious leaders, with their considerable influence on the hearts and minds of millions of people, are potentially very important human rights actors. This is also reflected in the following quote from the Beirut Declaration: “Our duty is to practice what we preach, to fully engage, to speak up and act on the ground in the defence of human dignity long before it is actually threatened.”

Thus these two shifts have led to conceptual clarification through the soft law standards emerging from Rabat and Beirut.

The imprint of these two documents is quite impressive. Within the last five years, the Rabat Plan of Action has been referred to in more than 120 UN documents by States, civil society organizations and human rights mechanisms; this means that every second week a UN document was published with a reference to the Rabat Plan of Action.

In the past eight months, the Beirut Declaration has also been used in several reports by the Secretary-General, Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies. For example, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women raised the “Faith for Rights” framework in their dialogues with three State parties in July, and a related recommendation was positively acknowledged by the concerned delegation in the concluding observations. All this illustrates the pressing demand for guidance and action in the context of faith and human rights.

Let me also highlight the fifth Commitment on non-discrimination and gender equality, with a concrete pledge to revisit those religious understandings and interpretations that appear to perpetuate gender inequality and harmful stereotypes or even condone gender-based violence. This human rights commitment is illustrated with pertinent quotes from the Talmud, Bible, Qu’ran, Hadith, Guru Granth Sahib, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the recently adopted joint UN general recommendation/comment on harmful practices. This approach in itself is more than symbolic, since it constitutes a referential bridge – instead of an ocean of divide – between faith and rights.

The next important shift is envisaged through this Rabat+5 symposium: After the successful shift from dialogue to standards we now hope to move to implementing and supporting concrete “Faith for Rights” projects by various stakeholders, notably at the grassroots level. Since human rights are by definition a multi-stakeholder exercise, the “Faith for Rights” framework is a good example of States, State religious authorities, faith-based and civil society organizations, national human rights institutions and individuals joining forces.

The Beirut Declaration encapsulates this message poignantly with its call to stand up for our shared humanity and equal dignity of each human being in all circumstances within our own spheres.

States continue to bear the primary responsibility for promoting and protecting all rights for all, individually and collectively to enjoy a dignified life free from fear and free from want and enjoy the freedom of choice in all aspects of life.
National human rights institutions are uniquely placed to be bridges that link the various stakeholders, including religious authorities and faith-based civil society organizations.

State religious authorities, some of which have centuries of history in the State, enjoy quite different privileges and legal status in the various countries. In this context, the 18 commitments pledge preventing the use of the notion of “State religion” to discriminate against any individual or group as well as preventing the use of “doctrinal secularism” from reducing the space for religious or belief pluralism in practice.

Faith-based actors and individual believers should also realize the importance of standing up for each other and acting on the basis of a shared vision. The vision has already been articulated in the “Faith for Rights” framework; concrete projects now need to give it life and impact on the ground, with full political, financial and substantive support.

Furthermore, research and academic centres have an important role in consolidating the recently emerging conceptual clarity and they should also continue comparative research on faith and rights.

No religious precept, however long established and proclaimed under whatever banner, should be shielded from scrutiny when human dignity is at stake. Education, academic freedom and freedom of expression are key ingredients for confronting new challenges as well as for facilitating free and creative thinking.

The various stakeholders should never accept the false dichotomy of “faith versus rights”. Human rights are neither opposed to faith, nor vice versa. State religious authorities, faith-based and civil society actors should work jointly for the constructive approach of “Faith for Rights”, which upholds human dignity and equality for all.

While religions have been manipulated across human history to divide people, faith may unite all believers in line with the Beirut Declaration’s message of “unity in diversity”.