Dr. Aaron Rhodes
Co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project; President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe; former Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights
I appreciate this opportunity to speak in the framework of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
As I understand it, the main role of the Parliamentary Assembly is to undertake investigations and make recommendations to the member states of the Council of Europe.
I am here to appeal to the members of the Parliamentary Assembly to soundly reject the resolution entitled “The protection of minors against excesses of sects.” (Drafted by French MP Rudy Salles and to be voted upon the 10th of April by the Plenary Assembly of the Council of Europe.)
As a human rights advocate, I am certain that this resolution would not offer children any meaningful protection not already available to them under the laws of member states.
But if it were to pass, the resolution would itself constitute a threat to children, as well as adults, who are members of minority religions.
It would stigmatize them and increase the chances of them being exposed to prejudice, discriminated against, and even subjected to violence.
The proposal raises the obvious question: Why focus just on so-called “sects”? What about the threats to children by main-line religious organizations?
The resolution would be a strike against religious toleration and thus against democracy and human rights, which mean nothing if religious groups are not treated equally.
The resolution would be a stain on the Council of Europe. It is in no way consistent with the intent of the founders of the Council of Europe. Indeed, it is confusing that such a document, one that would weaken human rights protections and possibly inspire human rights violations, is even under consideration.
An impressive list of independent human rights organizations, and those that monitor religious freedom issues in particular, are calling for the rejection of this measure.
They are doing so because they understand that the work of defending human rights is often that of defending the rights of members of minority groups—linguistic, ethnic, racial, political, sexual, or religious minorities, whose rights and security are often threatened because of discrimination and prejudice.
Indeed, the whole philosophical edifice of human rights emerged with recognition of the moral obligation to respect people’s dignity, not because they are members of one’s own kin or shared one’s religion or nationality, or ethnicity or race, but because they are simply human beings. It is also a central tenet of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Pluralism gave us our appreciation for the dignity of humanity as such, and for the universality of human rights.
We believe this Resolution violates the principle of State’s duty to neutrality in matters of religion or belief, treating some with greater suspicion than others, and stigmatizing their members.
Let us apply a simple test, the test of the Golden Rule: How would you feel, as a member of a so-called “sect,” if Europe’s guardians of human rights passed this Resolution? If members of the Council of Europe acted on the recommendations to engage in an assault on religions classified as “sects”? Indeed, the human rights community has many times condemned the classification of religious organizations using pejorative terms like “sect.” Passage of this Resolution will put the Parliamentary Assembly at odds, not only with obligations under its own European Convention, but also at odds with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Resolution is not only a recipe for discrimination and intolerance; it will provide cover for arbitrary interference in religious life.
Let me conclude be a few words about the implications of this proposal with regard to the effort to protect the freedom of religion worldwide.
Many members of the Council of Europe consider the freedom of religion a priority concern in their engagement with other countries. That is absolutely correct and appropriate, because the freedom of religion deeply affects the enjoyment of many other human rights, and is intrinsically among the most important rights necessary for human fulfillment.
But the freedom of religion is seriously threatened in a depressing number of countries—threatened by discriminatory laws; by blasphemy laws; by the refusal of authorities to protect members of minority religions; even by laws under which people can be executed for changing their religion—laws that exist even in some states that are members of the UN Human Rights Council.
The Council of Europe is respected around the world for upholding human rights standards. But if the Council of Europe itself embraces religious discrimination and interference by state authorities in the form of the Resolution under consideration here, it will not only degrade its own standards, but also diminish its value as a model for others.