Tag Archives: International Human Rights

Don’t Forget the Christians

This past weekend, the United States began to intervene in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Iraq. The Islamist group, ISIS, has made a lightning conquest of much of the region, persecuting religious minorities, and even some Sunni Muslims, everywhere it goes. In response, the US has begun air drops of food and water to up to 40,000 Yazidi refugees stranded on Mt. Sinjar, where ISIS militants have them surrounded. And the US undertook airstrikes against ISIS positions threatening the Kurdish city of Erbil, where hundreds of American advisers are stationed. Other Western nations have begun to get involved as well. The United Kingdom dropped supplies to the Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar, and France’s Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, visited Erbil to assess the situation.

BBC

Christian Refugees in Erbil (BBC)

In planning and delivering assistance to Iraqi refugees, the West — and particularly the United States, which has taken primary responsibility — should not ignore the plight of Christians. It may seem odd to voice this concern. After all, President Obama specifically mentioned Christians in his statements about American action. But Mideast Christians are often an afterthought for the United States, and it seems they are in this situation again. A Wall Street Journal report, which quotes unnamed members of the Obama administration, indicates the threat of genocide against Yazidis was the primary factor in the American decision to intervene. “This was qualitatively different from even the awful things that we’ve confronted in different parts of the region because of the targeted nature of it, the scale of it, the fact that this is a whole people,” the official said.

That is a rather myopic view of the situation. We’re offering assistance to 40,000 Yazidi refugees whom ISIS has driven from their homes and threatened to slaughter. Great—we should. But in the weeks before ISIS turned on the Yazidis, it had displaced more than 100,000 Christians from their homes and driven them into the desert. ISIS eliminated major Christian communities in Mosul and Qaraqosh, and the US responded only with a concerned statement from its UN ambassador. And this is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have become refugees since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. If genocide correctly describes what threatens the Yazidis, it also describes what’s happening to Iraqi Christians. Indeed, many of these Christians are the descendents of people who suffered genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.

There are reasons why America tends to treat Mideast Christians as an afterthought. Mideast Christians lack a natural constituency in American public life. They are, as one commentator observed, too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left. Most of our foreign policy elites have a blind spot about them. And I don’t mean to single out the Obama administration. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute has recounted her attempts to get the Bush administration to focus on the plight of Iraq’s Christians, only to be told by Condoleezza Rice that assistance for Christians would make the United States appear sectarian.

To draw attention to the plight of Iraq’s Christians is not special pleading. The US should not concern itself only with Christians; other religious minorities deserve our attention, too. But, in the Middle East and around the world, Christians are often targeted for persecution in particularly severe ways, and the human rights community often seems not to notice. Indeed, as Pope Francis explained in remarks at a conference the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored in Rome this summer, Christians suffer perhaps the largest share of religious persecution in the world today:

It causes me great pain to know that Christians in the world submit to the greatest amount of such discrimination. Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era. This is happening more than 1700 years after the edict of Constantine, which gave Christians the freedom to publicly profess their faith.

It’s good that the United States has begun attempts to alleviate a human rights crisis for which it bears much responsibility. Let’s hope it does not ignore some of the principal victims of that crisis.

#BringBackOurChristians

Last spring, Boko Haram, a jihadist group fighting to establish an Islamist state in Nigeria, kidnapped hundreds of girls from a public school in the city of Chibok. The kidnapping led to a worldwide hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls. Media celebrities signed up; political leaders, too, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron. American First Lady Michelle Obama famously tweeted a photo from the White House.

Three months have passed. Boko Haram has not released the girls, but the hashtag is no longer trending. The media has moved on to other stories. In fact, Boko Haram appears to miss the attention. This week, the group released a video to remind the world it’s still around.

The video features the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau (left), ridiculing the West’s campaign to free the girls and demanding, instead, that Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, release members of Boko Haram currently in prison. “You go around saying ‘Bring Back Our Girls,'” he mocks. “Bring Back Our Army.” For good measure, he repeats gleefully into the camera, “Kill, Kill, Kill, Kill Christians!”

The video is worth watching for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a nice lesson in the limits of social media. Feel-good hashtag campaigns, on their own, accomplish precisely nothing. To refer without irony to “the promise of the hashtag,” as a State Department spokesperson recently did in the context of the Ukraine crisis, is an embarrassment. Groups like Boko Haram will laugh off such trivialities or, indeed, co-opt them for their own purposes. So will other, more sovereign, opponents.

I don’t suggest the West should send commandos to Nigeria to free the girls, even assuming we could find them. Invading countries has a way of backfiring. In fact, we may not be capable of very much in this situation, unfortunately. But one thing’s for sure. Juvenile, self-regarding tweets–the foreign-policy version of selfies–will only make the West seem effete and, well, laughable.

Second, Shekau’s call to “Kill Christians” clarifies something important. As as a result of the Chibok kidnapping, the West sees Boko Haram as anti-women. But that’s a relatively minor part of the story. Boko Haram is not principally anti-women, but anti-Christian. The group has been carrying out atrocities against Christians for years. It’s just that the West has not found the story important. Indeed, Chibok itself is a largely Christian city, and most of the kidnapped schoolgirls are Christians. That’s a major reason why Boko Haram abducted them in the first place.

The media and Western human rights advocates have a hard time seeing Christians as sympathetic victims. Even when they acknowledge that Christians are suffering, they feel they somehow have to apologize for raising the subject. (Nicholas Kristof’s recent column for the New York Times is a good example). This bias prevents clear understanding, though. “Bring Back Our Girls?” How about, “Bring Back Our Christians?”

European Court Decides Church Autonomy Case; Russian Judge Calls Clerical Celibacy a Human Rights Violation

I’m a little late getting to this, but I wanted to say a few words about Fernández Martínez v. Spain, the church autonomy case the European Court of Human Rights decided last month. By a vote of 9-8, the court held that Spain did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights when it declined to renew the contract of a public school teacher who had been offering classes in Catholicism.

Because of the close vote, some commentators have expressed worries about the case’s implication for church autonomy in Europe. I think those worries are overstated. The closeness of the vote turns on the peculiarities of the Spanish public school system, in which state employees offer religious instruction. The dissent of the Russian judge does cause concern, however. Judge Dedov’s opinion suggests a bias against Catholicism unlike anything I can remember in a judicial opinion.

In Spain, public schools offer religious instruction at state expense. The teachers are state employees. But the Spanish government has entered into agreements with four religious communities–Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, and Muslim–which provide that schools will select instructors in those religions from candidates the communities certify as suitable. With respect to classes in Catholicism, the local Catholic bishop must approve instructors. Fernández Martínez lost his job when the local bishop refused to approve him. The bishop withdrew his approval when Fernández Martínez, a Catholic priest who had decided to marry and raise a family, appeared at a public protest in favor of optional clerical celibacy.

Fernández Martínez argued that the refusal to renew his contract violated his right under Article 8 of the Convention “to respect for his private and family life.” The court disagreed. The interference with the claimant’s right was justified in this case, it held. Spain had acted to protect the important principle of church autonomy, specifically, the right of the Catholic Church to designate which people could offer Catholic instruction in the public schools. Although the instructors were state employees, they were also representatives of the Church. It was not unreasonable for the Church to assert that Fernández Martínez’s conduct affected his credibility as a Catholic representative.

All this seems straightforward. So why was the vote so close? The eight dissenting judges expressed some unfortunate skepticism about what they called “absolute” church autonomy. To my mind, though, the key factor seems to have been that Fernández Martínez was a state employee, paid from public funds. As a result, the dissenters believed, the state had an obligation to him independent of the Church’s decision. It “is not the Bishop’s decision that should be scrutinized,” the dissenters wrote, “but the [state's] reaction to that decision.” For example, the state might have tried to find Fernández Martínez another position that would not involve teaching Catholicism. Instead, the state had simply let him go.

Judge Dmitry Dedov

In short, the closeness of the vote reflects the peculiarities of the Spanish system, in which teachers of Catholicism are state employees, rather than the principle of church autonomy itself. (I recognize that the Spanish system may not be so peculiar in the European context, but that’s a subject for another post.) On the other hand, one of the dissents does raise serious concerns. In a personal dissent, which no other member of the court joined, the Russian judge, Dmitry Dedov, argued that mandatory priestly celibacy was itself a human rights violation the court should not tolerate.

Mandatory celibacy has been a “well-known and serious problem” in Catholicism for centuries, Dedov wrote, citing Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds. It had caused a great deal of grief and led priests to abuse children “in many countries.” One could not justify holding people  to a vow of celibacy, even a voluntary one:

The Convention protects freedom of religion…. But it does not entitle religious organizations, even in the name of autonomy, to persecute their members for exercising fundamental human rights. If the Convention system is intended to combat totalitarianism, then there is no reason to tolerate the sort of totalitarianism that can be seen in the present case.

“I believe,” he concluded, “that optional celibacy is the best way out of this problem and that it could also–I hope–serve as a preventive measure against clerical sex abuses of children in the future.”

I suppose Judge Dedov, who attended a Soviet university in the 1980s, is in a position to know something about totalitarianism. But, really, his dissent is an embarrassment. No one asked Judge Dedov for his views on clerical celibacy. The merit of religious doctrine is not a matter for secular human rights judges to address, and certainly not in a simplistic and gratuitously insulting way. (The Thorn Birds? Really?) And to assert, without offering evidence, that Catholicism’s rules on clerical celibacy have themselves caused the sex abuse crisis–a crisis that has, no doubt, many causes–is not what one expects from a judge.

In a human rights court, litigants from religious communities have a right to think the judges will treat them fairly and, to the extent possible, decide cases without bias. Judges are not there to offer musings on comparative religion. Judge Dedov’s dissent suggests he has a personal problem with the Catholic Church. He should take that problem somewhere else.

Skepticism about International Religious Freedom: Types 1 and 2

A little more on last week’s conference, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” which CLR co-hosted in Rome.

First, a word of thanks to the participants. The presentations were thoughtful, the debate sharp but respectful. It was all one could want in an academic conference. And we had a private audience at the Vatican with Pope Francis! As Marc writes, to have the Pope address us personally, on a subject we study, at a conference we helped organize, was a remarkable experience.

We’ll post videos of the presentations as they become available. (A video of Pope Francis addressing the group is here). For now, though, I’d like to say just a few words about what I saw as one of the central themes at the conference: a certain skepticism about the promise of “international religious freedom.”

To be sure, many at the conference endorsed the idea of international religious freedom. International human rights law accepts that such a concept exists. International courts and organizations apply it; national governments purport to promote it in their foreign policy. Perceptive scholars like Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who appeared on one of our panels, work hard to advance it across the globe. Yet the concept of international religious freedom also provokes some skepticism, and did so at the conference. It seems to me this skepticism takes one of two forms, what we might call “Type 1″ and “Type 2″skepticism.

Type 1 skepticism holds that, although a universally applicable concept of religious freedom exists, states and international organizations lack the commitment to make it effective. At the conference, the Berkley Center’s Tom Farr expressed this sort of skepticism. He maintained that religious freedom is grounded in human nature itself. “Religion,” he argued, “is the universal human search for a greater-than-human source of being and ultimate meaning.” Because the search for transcendence is part of what it means to be human, the international order must allow people to participate in the search without unnecessary obstruction.  “To deny a person the right to engage in this search and to live in accord with the truths he discovers,” Tom maintained, “is to deny the very essence of what it means to be human.”

This formulation owes a great deal to natural law; indeed, in his remarks to the group, Pope Francis spoke of religious freedom in much the same terms. The problem for Tom, the source of his skepticism, is that states, including liberal Western states, do not do enough to protect this universal right. For example, he noted, “the American policy of advancing international religious freedom, which is highly rhetorical and lacks any strategic rationale, has been largely anemic and ineffective.” He noted that the post of US ambassador for international religious freedom has been vacant for months.

The second sort of skepticism, what I am calling “Type 2 skepticism,” differs fundamentally. It objects to the notion that “religious freedom,” as human rights advocates define it, is a neutral, universally applicable concept. What the human rights community perceives as neutral and universal is in fact a product of a particular culture and history–Western Christianity and the Enlightenment, especially the latter. One cannot legitimately expect other civilizations–Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, even Eastern Christian–simply to adopt religious freedom as Western lawyers define it. At the conference, Emory’s Abduh An-Na’im expressed this sort of skepticism. Religious freedom, he argued, must be expressed in idioms that non-Western societies can accept without surrendering their own religious and cultural heritage. I can’t recall his exact words, but he put it something like this: “If I have to choose between my ‘religion’ and ‘human rights,’ I’ll choose my religion every time.”

The two types of skepticism are related. Indeed, Type 2 skepticism provides an explanation for Type 1. In a world where civilizations differ on the core meaning of religious freedom, advancing a universal formulation is impossible. You might get states to agree on vague treaty language; the treatment of the right to change one’s religion in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights offers a famous example. But enforcement is another matter.

None of this is to say the we should give up on the idea of international religious freedom. Religious persecution around the world is too widespread, too serious a problem, for lawyers simply to throw up their hands. The two kinds of skepticism suggest, though, that as a practical matter advocates for international religious freedom may need to accept somewhat modest goals, at least for the present, and avoid universal assumptions that create unnecessary obstacles for their project.

Panel on USCIRF Report this Friday

This Friday, June 27, the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington will host a panel on the 2014 Annual Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom:

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released its 2014 Annual Report, entitled 15th Anniversary Retrospective: Renewing the Commitment. USCIRF is an independent U.S. government advisory body that monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress. The report examines the past decade and a half of U.S. foreign policy as it relates to religious freedom promotion and provides recommendations for how the United States can more effectively advance this right in the 21st century. In addition, the report highlights the situation of religious freedom globally and identifies governments who are the most egregious violators.

Details are here.

Reflections on “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values”

Mark has noted the important and interesting talk that Pope Francis gave about the condition of religious freedom around the world–a very fitting address inaugurating our conference in Rome, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values.” It really was quite special and memorable to have the Pope give remarks on a subject that we study here at the Center, at an audience we attended, for a conference that we organized. I thought to add a few thoughts about some of the themes that emerged from the conference presentations.

The keynote address was delivered by the Berkley Center’s Tom Farr, whose primary claim was that in order for international religious freedom to thrive as a human right, we need a deeper grounding–both principled and pragmatic–of the importance of the right of religious freedom as both an anthropological reality and as a practical necessity. I had the honor of moderating Tom’s talk and asked him whether in this particular climate what was needed was a thicker account of religious freedom or instead an (even) thinner account. He gave a thoughtful answer reflecting both the need for deep structures of justification and the difficulty of achieving consensus about them.

The first panel concerned the politics of international religious freedom and included the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, Ken Hackett, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, and Pasquale Annicchino of the European University Institute. It was in Dr. Bielefeldt’s talk that a useful tension began to emerge among some of the speakers–between those who were bullish or optimistic about the prospect that international law can effectively promote religious freedom and those who were a little more skeptical. Dr. Bielefeldt falls into the more optimistic camp–a good thing indeed, given his position. He emphasized the difference between the promotion of religious freedom in order to advance civic peace, on the one hand, and its promotion in order to vindicate a basic human right, on the other. Here I was reminded of the controversial “civic peace” justification in the American law of religious freedom.

The second panel dealt with comparative perspectives on international religious freedom. The perspectives compared included those of the member states of the Council of Europe and of Italy specifically. Here I was particularly interested in Marco Ventura’s lucid presentation about the difference between divergent and convergent approaches to religious freedom among and across European member states. Professor Ventura described the move toward convergence and argued for even greater convergence than has already been achieved. I had some questions about this coming from a country that has also struggled with the issue of convergence and divergence in the constitutional law of religious freedom. Here again, the tension between globalism and regionalism was in evidence in a slightly different way.

The third panel concerned Islamic and Christian perspectives on international religious freedom, and included presentations by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Olivier Roy, and Nina Shea. Here the primary point of tension involved the causes or roots of religious persecution of these two major religious groups. And here, too, there was skepticism, principally from Professor An-Na’im, about the efficacy of human rights regimes to protect religious freedom. “There was a world before international human rights, and there will be a world after international human rights,” he said.

In all, a very rewarding set of presentations.

Pope Francis Opens Center’s Conference with Statement on Religious Liberty, Persecution of Christians

Pope Francis opened our conference in Rome last week with a statement on religious liberty and the persecution of Christians. He reflected on the place of religious liberty in Catholic thought and decried religious discrimination across the world, particularly against Christians.

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Pope Francis Greets Conference Participants (News.va)

The Pope’s remarks came at a special audience at the Vatican for participants in the conference, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” which the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored with the St. John’s Center for International and Comparative Law and the Department of Law at the Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta. Referring to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration, Dignitatis humanae, the Pope argued that people require religious freedom in order to be fully human:

“Every human is a ‘seeker’ of truth on his origins and destiny,” the Pope said. “In his mind and in his ‘heart,’ questions and thoughts arise that cannot be repressed or stifled, since they emerge from the depths of the person and are a part of the intimate essence of the person. They are religious questions, and religious freedom is necessary for them to manifest themselves fully.”

He called religious freedom “a fundamental right of man.” It is “not simply freedom of thought or private worship,” but “the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly, consequent to the truth one has found.”

“Legal systems, at both national and international level, are therefore required to recognize, guarantee and protect religious freedom, which is a right intrinsically inherent in human nature.”

Religious freedom is also “an indicator of a healthy democracy” and “one of the main sources of the legitimacy of the state,” the Pope continued.

Nowadays, international and domestic law protect religious freedom. Notwithstanding this protection, however, religious discrimination continues. In fact, Pope Francis noted, 1700 years after the Edict of Milan, Christians worldwide suffer disproportionate discrimination and persecution. “The persecution of Christians today is even more virulent than in the first centuries of the Church,” he said, “and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era.”

We’ll have a fuller discussion of the Pope’s statement when the Vatican releases an official English translation. Meanwhile, here’s a video report on the audience in English.

UPDATE: Revised Conference Agenda– “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values”

Here is the updated schedule for our upcoming conference, International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values, in Rome, Italy on June 20-21. If you happen to be in Rome, it would be great to have you!

The Center for International and Comparative Law and the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s School of Law, and the Department of Law at the Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta, are pleased to present an academic conference:

International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values

Taking place in Rome on Friday, June 20, 2014, and Saturday, June 21, 2014, the conference will bring together American and European scholars and policymakers to discuss the place of religious freedom in international law and politics. Speakers will address a variety of perspectives. Proceedings will be in English and Italian with simultaneous translation.

Revised Conference Agenda

Friday, June 20, 2014

1:30 – 2:30 p.m.
Lunch

2:30 – 2:45 p.m.
Welcome

2:45 – 4 p.m.
Keynote Panel
Religious Freedom in International Law, Yesterday and Today
Thomas Farr (Georgetown University)
John Witte, Jr. (Emory University)
Moderator: Marc DeGirolami (St. John’s University)

4:15 – 5:30 p.m.
Panel 1: The Politics of International Religious Freedom
Pasquale Annicchino (European University Institute)
Heiner Bielefeldt (UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief)
Hon. Ken Hackett (US Ambassador to the Holy See)
Moderator: Margaret E. McGuinness (St. John’s University)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

8:30 – 9 a.m.
Coffee

9 – 10:15 a.m.
Panel 2: Comparative Perspectives on International Religious Freedom
Francisca Pérez-Madrid (University of Barcelona)
Marco Ventura (Catholic University Leuven and University of Siena)
Roberto Zaccaria (University of Florence)
Moderator: Monica Lugato (LUMSA)

10:15 – 10:30 a.m.
Coffee

10:30 – 11:45 a.m.
Panel 3: Christian and Muslim Perspectives on International Religious Freedom
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im (Emory University)
Olivier Roy (European University Institute)
Nina Shea (Hudson Institute)
Moderator: Mark L. Movsesian (St. John’s University)

Noon – 12:30 p.m.
Conference Conclusions
Giuseppe Dalla Torre
LUMSA

Location
LUMSA, Complesso del Giubileo
via di Porta Castello, 44 – Roma

Registration
Please register to attend the conference by June 9 at: eventi@lumsa.it

More Information
Monica Lugato | LUMSA Department of Law | monicalugato@lumsa.it
Mark L. Movsesian | St. John’s School of Law |Mark.Movsesian@stjohns.edu

Langer, “Religious Offence and Human Rights: The Implications of Defamation of Religions”

In July, Cambridge University Press will publish Religious Offence and Human Rights: The Implications of Defamation of Religions by Lorenz Langer (University of Zurich). The publisher’s description follows.

Should international law be concerned with offence to religions and their followers? Even before the 2005 publication of the Danish Mohammed cartoons, Muslim States have endeavoured to establish some reputational protection for religions on the international level by pushing for recognition of the novel concept of ‘defamation of religions’. This study recounts these efforts as well as the opposition they aroused, particularly by proponents of free speech. It also addresses the more fundamental issue of how religion and international law may relate to each other. Historically, enforcing divine commands has been the primary task of legal systems, and it still is in numerous municipal jurisdictions. By analysing religious restrictions of blasphemy and sacrilege as well as international and national norms on free speech and freedom of religion, Lorenz Langer argues that, on the international level at least, religion does not provide a suitable rationale for legal norms.

O’Halloran, “Religion, Charity and Human Rights”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Religion, Charity and Human Rights by Kerry O’Halloran (Queensland University of Technology).  The Religion, Chairtypublisher’s description follows.

For the first time in 400 years a number of leading common law nations have, fairly simultaneously, embarked on charity law reform leading to an encoding of key definitional matters in charity legislation. This book provides an analysis of international case law developments on the ever growing range of issues now being generated by clashes between human rights, religion and charity law. Kerry O’Halloran identifies and assesses the agenda of ‘moral imperatives’, such as abortion and gay marriage that delineate the legal interface and considers their significance for those with and those without religious belief. By assessing jurisdictional differences in the law relating to religion/human rights/charity the author provides a picture of the evolving ‘culture wars’ that now typify and differentiates societies in western nations including the USA, England and Wales, Ireland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.