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UN expert: State and religion best served by maintaining "respectful distance"

GENEVA (2 March 2018) – The degree of States’ entanglement with, or disengagement from, religion or belief has far-reaching implications on how the right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld, said the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed.

“States that either enforce or restrict religion are both motivated to establish a monopoly for their ideologies that involve coercion or discrimination,” the expert said. “Everyone, whether belonging to the majority or minority religious communities, including the converts and non-believers, women, children and LGBTI persons are bound to be affected in these States in their rights to freedom of religion or belief.”

In a report to the Human Rights Council, Shaheed identified three broad types of relationships between State and religion as the basis to discuss the challenges that States face in promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief: States with official or favoured religions, States with no identification towards a specific religion and States that pursue policies to heavily restrict the role of religion.

“Although international law does not prescribe any particular form of relationship between State and religion, it does impose a duty on the State to be an impartial guarantor of freedom of religion or belief to all,” he said.

“No model of relationship between State and religion is sufficient to guarantee freedom of religion or belief to all, however, the model that is most frequently co-related with respect for freedom of religion or belief for all is when the State and religion maintain a “respectful distance” in terms of law and public policy, and respect pluralism and promote social inclusion,” Shaheed said.

“What is most crucial is that national religion laws conform to international standards on freedom of religion or belief, that there is respect for the rule of law, the protection and promotion of the equal enjoyment of all human rights by everyone, and a social and political commitment to fostering pluralism,” he said.

“Respect for freedom of religion or belief is closely related to the degree of tolerance and respect for diversity within a society,” added the Special Rapporteur. “Other human rights like freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association cannot flourish if freedom of religion or belief is violated.

“I strongly encourage states to facilitate interfaith communication and invest in increasing the literacy on religions and freedom of religion or belief.”

The Special Rapporteur also presented reports on his country visits to Albania and Uzbekistan at this session.


Read the Special Rapporteur’s report on country visit to Albania

Read the Special Rapporteur’s report on country visit to Uzbekistan

Mr. Ahmed Shaheed (the Maldives) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016. Mr. Shaheed is Deputy Director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, UK and Senior Fellow of the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Centre in Canada. He was Foreign Minister of the Maldives from 2005 to 2007 and from 2008 to 2010. He led the country’s efforts to sign and ratify all nine international human rights Conventions and to implement them in law and practice. Mr. Shaheed is the former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For inquiries and media requests, please contact: Chian Yew Lim (+41 22 928 9310 / clim@ohchr.org)
For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact: Jeremy Laurence – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / jlaurence@ohchr.org).

This year is the 70th anniversaryof the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human Rightswww.standup4humanrights.org