Culture, religion and the human rights framework: Some reflections after the 37th session of the Human Rights Council

  • blog Type / Advocacy blog
  • Date / 27 March 2018
  • By / Elizabeth O'Casey

After the closing of the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council, IHEU Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey,  reflects on the relationship between religion, culture  and the universalism of human rights.

All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. This means that they apply to all people universally regardless of their individual views, gender, race, sexual orientation, ability (etc.) and they work in support of each other. This principle is central to our advocacy work at the IHEU, and it was clearly articulated in the UN Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action twenty-five years ago, creating a premise for the coherency of human rights.

Despite this, we have seen the right to freedom of religion or belief and to culture manipulated and instrumentalised to undermine the universality of human rights. For example: Recently, in Puerto Rico, the Senate approved a so-called “Law for the Protection of Religious Freedom” which allows individuals and religious groups to discriminate against LGBTI people; and there are at least eight US states who have enacted similar laws that allow people to infringe on the rights of LGBTI individuals and their families on the claim of upholding their own religious beliefs. Even at the UN Human Rights Council, states are on record as citing “cultural particularities” and “religious specificities” as a pretence for why human rights are not universal and do not extend to equality and the right to non-discrimination for LGBTI people or women.

Likewise, our members in Guatemala, Ghana, India and Nepal have shared the same experience – where culture, religion and tradition have been used as covers to undermine the equality and human rights of people, often the most vulnerable in society – and we spoke out on this in partnership with each member during the latest Human Rights Council session.

I have written about this phenomenon at previous UN Human Rights Council sessions (see: ““Cultural practices and religious specificities” at the Human Rights Council“; “Freedom of expression and universal human rights“). However, this underlying tension arose again at the most recent session of the Council which finished on Friday. It is also an issue that drives our advocacy agenda in terms of the human rights we elect to focus on: i.e. those that are threatened or undermined by the use of culture, religion and tradition as a means for those with power to ensure lack of equality and rights applicable to all. The rights most vulnerable to this tend to include: freedom of thought and beliefs not shared by the majority, free expression and assembly, the rights of women, the rights of the child and equality for LGBTI people.

Panellists speaking at our event during the 37th session of the Human Rights Council

It was for this reason I was interested in holding an event that explored this a little at the UN. In cooperation with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (and co-sponsored by ILGA and the Observatory on the Universality of Rights) we organised an event at the Human Rights Council which looked at the role of the relationship between religion and state, how it can contribute to fostering an environment that is supportive of the foundational principle of the universality and indivisibility of human rights. Our panellists were: Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Dr Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights; Andre Du Plessis, Head of Operations at ILGA; Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters (UK); and Fatima Moreto from CDD-Mexico. All panellists voiced concern over religion, culture and tradition being used to undermine human rights and re-emphasised the role of faith and belief in the lives of many, and the importance of respecting rights of people not phenomena determined by history and habit.

Flyer for EU event on the religion/state relationship

Also during the session, the EU delegation to the UN hosted an event to discuss the recent report by Dr Shaheed on state/religion relationships. In his report Dr Shaheed found that states which enforce an official religion often feature high levels of restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, and often discriminate against persons belonging to religious minorities, women, LGBTI persons, converts or non-believers.

Dr Ahmed’s findings won’t come as too much of a surprise to those humanist and freethinking organisations working on the ground on these issues, but it is a significant contribution to the discussion at the international level, where this has not been established. [Incidentally, I believe the IHEU was perspicacious in organising an event on this very issue a couple of years ago at the UN with the previous Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt and in making an oral statement and written statement on the issue (pdf).]

We should distinguish here between religion and the right to freedom of religion or belief. Religion as an ideology will inevitably when interpreted in a certain way (a way which unfortunately seems to be the majority way when looking across the world) conflict with some rights – e.g. to equality for women, freethinkers, on the grounds of caste, and LGBTI people. Personal views are up to the individual, it is how society and state manages them in terms of rights and their interaction with which we are concerned.

And the point with the right to freedom of religion or belief is that it is a fundamental freedom and a fundamental right from which so many other rights emanate. It is a right that allows us all to be true to our conscience – including to question dogma and to think freely. It is not a peculiar right that magically permits discrimination against others. No rights do that.

Of course, there will be occasions – particularly around conscience – where accommodations may have to be arranged, but this fact doesn’t mean that rights should be pitted against each other. Freedom, equality, choice and dignity are the underpinnings of our human rights and any decisions on how best to manage individual demands must be guided by these principles. Any message to the contrary constitutes a pernicious weaponisation of the right to freedom of religion or belief and we cannot let it be instrumentalised in this way.

Indeed, it was this message I was trying to get across in my final oral statement to the Council this session (pdf), in which I argued that we cannot allow people to claim that an insistence on equal treatment for LGBTI people – and other groups such as women, minorities, children etc – amounts to some sort of state persecution against those seeking to pursue their own “freedom of religion” which sees LGBTI people or other minorities as unequal. Quite how the right to freedom of religion or belief for LGBTI people (particularly religious LGBTI people) is so blatantly ignored in these arguments is beyond me.

IHEU Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey

Instead, I pointed out, the “real victims are not those who seek to dress up their anti-gay prejudices as religious conscience, but those LGBTI people living in the 76 countries in which they are branded criminals under anti-gay legislation.”

Simply put, a selective interpretation of religious texts or cultural traditions does not allow for the right to deny others the right to equality and non-discrimination. And it does not undermine the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. We as humanists and freethinkers believe this and fight for this, and we must ensure that we continue to strive for others to do the same. Let’s not allow the beliefs, traditions, and cultures that are so precious and intrinsic to us all as human beings to be monopolised for the denial of basic rights for all.

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