Asma Jahangir has served as UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief since 2004. She retires from her position at the end of June this year.
On 15 March 2010, ahead of her impending retirement she held a valedictory meeting with NGOs at the Palais des Nations Geneva where she summarised her thoughts on her mandate.
She considered the position to have been an honour and underlined her gratitude for the support she had needed and received from NGOs to bolster her courage and not to compromise on Human Rights.
There had not been the same intellectual challenge when she had been Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, but that had been more emotionally draining. Being Rapporteur for Religion or Belief was an intellectual challenge. This is because there is not a black and white distinction between perpetrator and victim, and the temptation to call for Government intervention needs to be tempered as it can be counterproductive by actually increasing tension.
One of the challenges is new religious movements, often described as “awful cults” by Governments as an illegitimate way of denying them freedom. Another challenge is to raise awareness of the adverse impact of religion, often denied, on women’s rights and discrimination against women. Perhaps the greatest challenges to women’s rights, challenges that need to be pointed out, come from religion and tradition, often inextricably entwined.
Another challenge relates to eliminating restrictions on the freedom to exercise religious conscience, but this freedom cannot be unfettered; it cannot be an excuse for impinging on the rights of others.
The climate of tolerance for freedom of religion or belief, even at the UN, is waning alarmingly. The freedom to convert is basic. It is inconceivable that any country cannot accept this freedom, for to deny it is nothing other than oppression. Yet demands to allow and facilitate conversion meet with “ifs” and “buts” even at the Human Rights Council.
The accepted wisdom is that it is countries with largely poor and uneducated populations that are the most intolerant. This is incorrect. Some of the worst intolerance she has seen has comes from educated people in rich countries. Intolerance is not the result of poverty, it is a mindset that must not be accepted or tolerated.
Where some countries could play a role in bridging freedom of religion and local constraints, they have exploited the tensions rather than helping build bridges.
Article 18 (the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) requires freedom of expression, for which we must also fight.
She singled out the Islamic Sharia as being a particular problem and an obstacle to her mandate, and stressed the importance of fighting for equal rights.
A practical problem to the execution of her mandate had been the grossly inadequate information fed to her on incidents and infringements, identifying Sharia as a particular area of paucity of information.
Dr Jahangir counselled everyone to work hard at ensuring her successor was kept much better informed.
She concluded by expressing her concern at the recurring attempts to introduce resolutions on defamation of religion, which she sees as partly connected with the objective of advancing the Sharia. She believes it is essential to resist, and urged that this issue be brought more effectively to the attention of the media and the ears of the UN in New York.
In reply to questions, she commended attempts being made to introduce legislation outlawing caste discrimination.
She observed that countries supporting defamation of religions frequently want to silence minorities from expressing dissent.
And finally, Dr Jahangir pointed out that the non-religious were also protected by the right to freedom of religion or belief, and underlined the importance of including the non-religious and women in dialogue.