The International Humanist and Ethical Union, in cooperation with the Pacific Islands Secular Association (PISA), has raised concerns over the current state of freedom of religion or belief in Samoa, during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister of Samoa stated his intention to incorporate Christianity as the official state religion in the body of the Samoan constitution. In our statement at the UN, IHEU’s Director of Advocacy Elizabeth O’Casey, raised concerns about the role of official state religions as well as highlighting cases of discrimination against some people seeking to exercise the right to freedom of religion or belief in the country.
By contrast in Samoa’s neighbour, Fiji, whose population is is 99% religious, the constitution is secular. Indeed Mr Frank Bainimarama, Fiji’s prime minister, told the UN Human Rights Council last March that Fiji’s 2013 constitution for the first time in the nation’s history formally made the Republic of Fiji a secular state.
A PISA representative said of the issue, “We at PISA are extremely concerned and saddened at the possibility of Samoa establishing a state religion, and feel it is important to speak out at the UN on the issue. We wanted to highlight the situation as well as encourage other states to put pressure on Samoa to keep the state secular.
“PISA looks forward to its future role advocating for secular government in the Pacific, creating a welcoming space for citizens who want to exercise their human right to have a belief of their own volition.”
Our statement on Samoa follows below, in full:
International Humanist and Ethical Union
UN Human Rights Council, 33rd Session (13th September – 30th September 2016)
UPR on Samoa
The IHEU and Pacific Islands Secular Society (PISA) note with concern the Samoan Prime Minister’s recent statement that his Government intends to “put it boldly in the Constitution’s body that the official religion of Samoa is Christianity.”
Whilst we recognise that according to General Comment 22 on the ICCPR, an established state religion in itself is not prohibited under international human rights law, we remain concerned about the potential for discrimination, and remind Samoa that the burden of proof is on the state to demonstrate such a move would not discriminate.
Not only does the IHEU have significant concerns about official state religions in terms of symbolizing a state’s preference for one religion and the second class status of those who do not subscribe to that religion, but we are also worried about the motivation behind this move. [Whilst the Prime Minister did not name any particular religion he went on to mention religious violence in the Middle East and terror attacks elsewhere throughout the world.]
We support the findings of the Samoan Commission of Inquiry, which determined that limiting or restricting religion or belief by amending the constitution as proposed would contravene human rights and Article 11 of the Samoan Constitution.
We are also concerned about the situation for freedom of religion or belief in the country; the 2015 Report of the Office of the Ombudsman and National Human Rights Institution recorded concerns from citizen regarding severe and burdensome rules and restrictions on the establishment or membership of religions in villages, as well as reports of banishment for those seeking to practice a different religion. Some villages limit church numbers and type, meaning the freedom to choose a minority religion is often not available. The single Muslim mosque in Samoa has freedom to operate only because it is on freehold land where approval is not controlled by village chiefs.
In accordance with its international obligations, we call on Samoa to cease any plans to establish an official state religion and recommend it better ensure the implementation of freedom of religion or belief at the local level within villages across the country.