UN: Asma Jahangir, UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom or Belief
The Special Rapporteur was recently in Geneva to present her report at the sixty-first session of the Commission on Human Rights. The report states that a large number of the violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief are committed by non-state actors, whether members of religious groups themselves or others. "States can't abdicate their responsibility they have an obligation to protect", she told Respect.
The report deplores the absence in many countries of positive measures that aim at restoring or establishing a climate of religious tolerance, which remains the central concern of the mandate. "Religious intolerance is no longer in pockets it is across the world. There is a need to build space and encourage tolerance", she writes.
She also describes as worrying two other issues, which is the human rights violations by groups/sects within a particular religion and forced conversions, which she explains in her report as "unacceptable".
The Special Rapporteur was in Nigeria on a fact finding mission in February and will make a country visit to Sri Lanka in early May. She has also been invited by the Government of Bangladesh and in her report encourages more countries to extend invitations enabling her to 'comprehensively and thoroughly' assess country situations. Jahangir said one of her main aims during the year will be to mainstream gender into her work. She said women are particularly affected by the lack of religious tolerance.
"Women have less autonomy over what religious belief they should adopt, it is sometimes decided on their marriage status. In a number of religions women are not allowed to get married outside their own religion". "In some cases the question of religions can systematically be narrowed down to the head scarf issue of female children", she says, adding that in a number of countries dress code is prescribed for women and it is not their choice.
Jahangir says that her mandate is complex, "not black and white. It deals with people and their faith. It is in the emotional realm rather than cut and dry rules and regulations".
A main challenge will be to find more creative recommendations for governments to accept; not just political strategies but social policies to improve religious tolerance, she added.
"Sometimes you see the contradiction of people's faith verses how nation state can become subservient to issues of faith. There is this question of how to strike a balance".
Interview by: Farah Mihlar Ahamed
Respect - the Human Rights Newsletter (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights)