Compliance Symposium: “Faith for Rights” in Armed Conflict

Compliance Symposium: “Faith for Rights” in Armed Conflict

[Ibrahim Salama is Chief of the Human Rights Treaties Branch at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), where he also leads the “Faith for Rights” programme. Previously he headed the UN secretariat for the preparatory process of the 2009 United Nations World Conference Against Racism (Durban Review Conference), was independent expert of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and was elected Chairperson of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Right to Development. Michael Wiener has been working with OHCHR since 2006 and he has been a Visiting Fellow of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford since 2011. He was one of the experts who participated in the consultations that drafted the Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality. He has also been working on the design and implementation of the Rabat Plan of Action and Beirut Declaration on “Faith for Rights”.

“Human rights are closely connected to religion, security and peace. Religious leaders play a crucial role in either defending human rights, peace and security – or, unfortunately, in undermining them. Supporting the positive contributions of faith-based actors is crucial, as is preventing the exploitation of religious faith as a tool in conflicts, or as interpreted to deny people’s rights.”

High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

Roles and responsibilities of religious leaders

Conflicts are the ultimate testing moment for our values, laws and leadership. The above quote by UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet during the 2019 Global Summit on Religion, Peace and Security encapsulates the fundamental questions on the role and human rights responsibilities of religious leaders during armed conflict and beyond. On the one hand, their role can be very detrimental, as evidenced by cases of incitement to hatred, discrimination, violence or even atrocity crimes in the name of religion. On the other hand, there are numerous examples where faith-based actors have contributed to preventing an escalation of violence due to their courageous interventions, joint activities or positive speech.

In this context, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been working for several years with faith-based actors to conceive the “Faith for Rights” framework, upholding the dignity and the equal worth of all human beings. In March 2017, several faith-based and civil society actors as well as Special Rapporteurs and Treaty Body members adopted the Beirut Declaration and its 18 commitments on “Faith for Rights”, which articulates “a shared vision of our responsibilities and transcend[s] preaching to action” (A/HRC/40/58, annex I, para. 6).

The Beirut Declaration stresses that “Religious communities, their leaders and followers have a role and bear responsibilities independently from public authorities both under national and international legal instruments” (A/HRC/40/58, annex I, para. 18), notably article 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (prohibiting incitement to hatred and violence) and article 2(1) of the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion of Belief (prohibiting discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons or person on the grounds of religion or belief).

Like all human rights, the “Faith for Rights” framework applies both in times of peace and conflict. With regard to armed conflict, the Beirut Declaration notes that “the notion of effective control provides the foundation for responsibilities of non-State actors in times of conflict”, quoting the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (general recommendation no. 30, para. 16) and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (A/HRC/28/66, paras. 54-55) to support its footnote 7: “Under certain circumstances, in particular when non-State actors exercise significant/effective control over territory and population (e.g. as de facto authorities), they are also obliged to respect international human rights as duty bearers.”

Speaking with one voice

How can these aspirational words be transformed into reality? And how to ensure protection for those religious leaders and believers, who receive      threats, or risk to be abducted or killed because they dare to speak out against non-State armed groups such as the Taliban (see for example the report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on “Attacks Against Places of Worship, Religious Leaders and Worshippers”)? The answer of faith actors, in the Beirut Declaration, is the following:

“Speaking with one voice, particularly against any advocacy of hatred that amounts to inciting violence, discrimination or any other violation of the equal dignity that all human beings enjoy regardless of their religion, belief, gender, political or other opinion, national or social origin, or any other status. Denouncing incitement to hatred, injustices, discrimination on religious grounds or any form of religious intolerance is not enough. We have a duty to redress hate speech by remedial compassion and solidarity that heals hearts and societies alike. Our words of redress should transcend religious or belief boundaries. Such boundaries should thus no longer remain a free land for manipulators, xenophobes, populists and violent extremists” (A/HRC/40/58, annex I, para. 10).

Peer-to-peer learning

What are the experiences and lessons learned by faith-based actors themselves when dealing with situations of tension, including among rights? The #Faith4Rights toolkit, which was launched in 2020 by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, tries to address these questions in a peer-to-peer learning mode that aspires to capture and share the richness of faith actors’ experiences with conflicts across the globe. The toolkit suggests a menu of exercises, for example by discussing the topics of religions in times of conflict; religious wars in history and residual consequences; the importance of objective research to establish historical facts to prevent recurrence of conflict (see p. 56). These proposed actions appear in the context of commitment X on “Faith for Rights”, which pledges not to tolerate exclusionary interpretations on religious grounds that instrumentalize religions, beliefs or their followers to incite hatred and violence.

Furthermore, commitment XV pledges “neither to coerce people nor to exploit persons in vulnerable situations into converting from their religion or belief, while fully respecting everyone’s freedom to have, adopt or change a religion or belief and the right to manifest it”. In this regard, the #Faith4Rights toolkit proposes a storytelling exercise (see p. 73) where participants discuss cases of coercion to change one’s religion, such as      the forced conversions of members of the Yezidi minority community, who were held by the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) in Iraq’s Nineveh province (see the joint urgent appeal issued by several Special Rapporteurs in 2015).

In addition, faith actors have committed themselves “to leverage the spiritual and moral weight of religions and beliefs with the aim of strengthening the protection of universal human rights and developing preventative strategies that we adapt to our local contexts” (A/HRC/40/58, annex II, commitment XVI). While religions are often manipulated in conflict situations, the #Faith4Rights toolkit highlights that “faith actors are powerful agents of peacebuilding and reconciliation in post conflict situations” and they are “best placed to prevent or counter such manipulation in the name of their own religion or belief” (see p. 75). Again, one of the peer-to-peer learning exercises suggests discussing the role of faith actors in armed conflicts and in enhancing compliance with international humanitarian law (see p. 78), referring to a related article by Ioana Cismas and Ezequiel Heffes as well as the High Commissioner’s statement at the Security Council Arria-formula meeting on “Advancing the safety and security of persons belonging to religious minorities in armed conflict”. It also quotes from the 2019 report on “IHL and Islamic Law in Contemporary Armed Conflicts”, in which ICRC President Peter Maurer stressed the importance of engaging in constructive dialogue with cultural and religious actors on working together in order to uphold international humanitarian law, and thus prevent violations and protect communities.

In this context, the #Faith4Rights toolkit provides another compelling example that was raised by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief concerning a breakthrough in inter-faith communication reached by religious leaders in Cyprus (see p. 79). While the Cyprus conflict is not per se a religious conflict, the Special Rapporteur stressed that all cooperation between the religious leaders had stopped when the bi-communal conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots escalated in the 1960s. Therefore, the 2013 agreement that allows Muslim and Greek Orthodox religious leaders, who had previously been stop-listed, to cross the Green Line which divides the island, has been rightly called “a huge leap for the religious communities concerned”. In addition, the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process has translated the Beirut Declaration into Greek and Turkish, using it for awareness-raising campaigns on social media, collaboration with educators and journalists as well as cross-disciplinary dialogue on human rights across the island (Faith for Rights: report and outlook, pp. 55-62).

Finally, the UN Human Rights Committee’s most recent general comment on article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights      emphasizes that the use of force during peaceful assemblies remains regulated by the rules governing law enforcement and the Covenant continues to apply in a situation of armed conflict (CCPR/C/GC/37, para. 97). The general comment also flags that freedom of thought, conscience and religion is non-derogable (para. 96) and that participation in assemblies whose dominant message falls within the scope of article 20 must be addressed in conformity with the requirements set out by freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly (para. 50). It is remarkable that the UN Human Rights Committee explicitly refers to the six-part threshold test outlined in the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of incitement to hatred as well as to the Beirut Declaration (see CCPR/C/GC/37, footnotes 19 and 62). In this context, the #Faith4Rights toolkit suggests a peer-to-peer learning exercise to unpack when freedom of expression within the theological discourse enters into a grey zone that may reach the threshold of advocacy to hatred that could constitute incitement to violence (see p. 49).

The fundamental role of “speech”, for good or ill, is captured by the Beirut Declaration in the following inspirational words that highlight the importance of a “Faith for Rights” approach in armed conflict:

“War starts in the minds and is cultivated by a reasoning fuelled by often hidden advocacy of hatred. Positive speech is also the healing tool of reconciliation and peace-building in the hearts and minds. Speech is one of the most strategic areas of the responsibilities we commit to assume and support each other for their implementation through this Faith for Rights declaration” (A/HRC/40/58, annex I, para. 20).

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