European Interreligious Forum For Religious Freedom

A serious threat to religious freedom? Human Rights experts speak up at Council of Europe

Written the Tuesday, April 8th 2014 à 19:45

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Press release
Minors and excesses of sects:
A serious threat to religious freedom?
Human Rights experts speak up at Council of Europe
Tuesday 8th April – Strasbourg – Council of Europe

At an event in the Council of Europe today a coalition of 5 groups concerned with Religious Freedom held a well-attended event on the subject. The event was sponsored by Member of Parliament Valeriu Ghiletchi*. The event was held to focus attention on the already extensive criticism of French MP Rudy Salles’ Report “The protection of minors against excesses of sects” – a report that will be debated in the Parliamentary Assembly on the 10th April.

The two speakers, Professor Vincent Berger** and Dr Aaron Rhodes*** outlined the dangers of adopting a report that would affect the rights of religious minorities when, from a human rights and legal perspective, there are no or inadequate definitions to define the supposed problem. To implement measures without any clear legal basis would only end up stigmatizing and eventually reducing the rights and protection of children and their parents.

The report was also strongly criticized for its lack of evidence to support the proposed recommendations which Professor Berger said ‘would be likely to seriously undermine religious freedom and freedom of association guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, they cast aspersions on all new religious and spiritual groups that have emerged in Europe alongside traditional churches and denominations…’

Dr. Rhodes, former Executive Director of the International Helsinki Committee and Co-Founder of the Freedom Rights Project, who has worked in the human rights field for many years, was particularly critical of the failure of the report and recommendations to meet human rights standards. He made it clear that the draft resolution “would not offer children any meaningful protection not already available to them under the laws of member states” and that 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.” 

He went on to say, “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.” “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.”    

After a number of questions, many of them seeking to understand the motivation behind the report, Mr Ghiletchi concluded the meeting by appealing to the attendant MPs and NGO representatives. He said “This should not become a resolution. It will be a stain, a shame to the Council of Europe if it accepts this resolution. This draft report is a real threat to religious freedom and we cannot accept such a Pandora’s Box.”

Key points of serious concern included the following:

- The use of the term “sect” will establish a restrictive classification system that will stigmatize and marginalize targeted minority faiths.  This runs counter to statements by international human rights bodies and two former UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion and Belief that the term is a derogatory designation inconsistent with policies that foster religious freedom, pluralism and tolerance.
- The implementation of “extensive awareness-raising measures” for certain officials, including judges, on the issue of “sects” will contravene a UN Human Rights Committee finding that such “awareness sessions” violate human rights standards and a recommendation that “sensitizing sessions for judges against the practices of certain designated sects” cease.(1)

- The establishment of national and regional information centers or “sect observatories” without requiring such centers to be staffed by independent, neutral and objective experts with appropriate academic qualifications, and to provide targeted religious groups with access to their files and the opportunity to respond and correct inaccuracies, will result in a biased approached toward minority faiths. 
- The series of measures in the area of education and children will jeopardize the rights of parents to educate their children in conformity with their own religious beliefs, as protected under Article 9 and Protocol 1, Article 2, of the Convention; Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- The call for all 47 member states to “adopt or strengthen, if necessary, legislative provisions punishing the abuse of psychological and/or physical weakness” is clearly based on the much-criticized About-Picard law in France.  This runs counter to previous declarations and resolutions of PACE.  On April 26, 2011, 50 members of PACE signed Declaration 321, expressing their concern about the About-Picard law.  And on November 18, 2002, PACE adopted Resolution 1309 on the About-Picard law, calling on the French government to “reconsider the law” and its conformance with Article 9 of the Convention.

The report will come before the Assembly on Thursday 10th April. It is expected that there will be strong opposition to the report and many amendments will be filed if the report is not rejected completely.

*Mr. Ghiletchi is a key figure in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s campaign “One in Five” directed at uniting parliaments in combating sexual violence against children.

**Professor Berger was until recently the Jurisconsult of the European Court of Human Rights – a unique position responsible for case-law monitoring and preventing case-law conflicts in the Court. He is therefore in a unique position to determine the validity of the report from a European human rights and case law perspective.
***Dr Rhodes is regarded as one of the world’s leading human rights activities who has deveoted his life to public service.

The groups sponsoring this event are:

European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom
Care for Europe
The Moscow Helsinki Group
The All Faiths Network
The European Evangelical Alliance

1. UN Human Rights Committee Concluding Observations: Germany (18/11/96), (CCPR/C/79/Add.73). 

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