Human Rights

At the UN, an exploration about how to best promote religious tolerance

In Brief: 
  • A ministerial level side event sponsored by Italy and Jordan during the high level summit of world leaders in September explored the connection between human rights and religious tolerance.
  • Among other things, participants said while freedom of religion or belief is often overlooked as a significant human right, it is nevertheless crucial in promoting religious tolerance and reducing tension in many regions.
  • Civil society plays a key role in promoting tolerance.

UNITED NATIONS — While the right to freedom of religion or belief is often overlooked or under-enforced by governments, it is nevertheless crucial in promoting religious tolerance — and is thus central to reducing tensions in many of the world’s current flash points.

That was among the main themes of a discussion sponsored by Italy and Jordan during the UN’s annual high level summit of world leaders in September.

As part of an initiative by the two governments to promote religious tolerance worldwide, the discussion, held on 27 September 2012, focused on the issue of “current and future challenges” in the protection of religious minorities, featuring the views of civil society representatives.

“The protection of religious liberty is clearly the challenge of our times and the challenge of the 21st Century,” said panelist Elizabeth Defeis, a professor of law at Seton Hall Law School.

Ms. Defeis cited a new report by the Pew Research Center that says 75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high government restrictions on or high social hostilities towards religion.

“The report indicates that Christians are most at risk, and are the subject of such discrimination in more than 110 countries,” she said. “Such actions are of course in violation of international law.

“As an aspect of sovereignty, all nations have a responsibility to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity,” said Prof. Defeis. “Sadly, violence directed against civilians because of religious practices and beliefs can rise to the level of crimes against humanity.”

Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations, said efforts to uphold religious freedom provide an antidote to religious intolerance and the resulting crises that emerge when religious groups clash.

“It has been well established that the repression of freedom of religion or belief leads to political and social instability, unrest, at times culminating in violent clashes and loss of life,” said Ms. Dugal.

“It has been well established that the repression of freedom of religion or belief leads to political and social instability, unrest, at times culminating in violent clashes and loss of life.”

— Bani Dugal, Bahá’í


“When governments actively suppress or repress these freedoms, they marginalize religious communities, exacerbate misunderstandings, and encourage the propagation of harmful and hateful stereotypes.”

She cited the case of Iran’s persecution of Bahá’ís as a dramatic example of “state-sponsored religious persecution.”

“No society is perfect, but the freedoms enjoyed in pluralistic societies in which diversity of religion and belief is protected, coupled with the rule of law, provide a much more stable foundation for peaceful relations between members of different religions and for positive dynamics in society at large,” said Ms. Dugal.

Also on the panel were William Vendley, secretary general of Religions for Peace, who discussed a wide range of interfaith programs sponsored by his organization around the world, and James Patton of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. Pamela Falk, a CBS News foreign affairs analyst, moderated the discussion, which was one of three panels at a day-long forum on religious tolerance.

A priority for governments

Earlier in the day, Italy’s foreign minister, Guilio Terzi, joined the foreign minister of Jordan, Nasser Judeh, to discuss why freedom of religion must be addressed as a priority by governments and civil society. Among the best remedies to religious intolerance, they said, was increased education about human rights.

“Civil society,” said Minister Judeh, “particularly human rights defenders and religious and community leaders, play a crucial role in countering all forms of extremism and hatred and in promoting tolerance, fostering dialogue and mutual understanding.”

“The promotion of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue have always been the main principles that Jordan abides by and adheres to,” he added.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, and UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng also addressed the meeting, which was held as a side event to the annual September summit meeting of the UN General Assembly.

Mr. Dieng said religious tolerance and respect for freedom of religion or belief is essential in defusing “identity-based” conflicts that sometimes lead to genocide.

“In a world where societies are more and more diverse, tolerance is more likely to flourish when the human rights of all religious groups are respected and, similarly, human rights can thrive only if different groups are treated in the same way,” said Mr. Dieng.

Ms. Bokova took note of the recent religious disturbances in many Muslim countries following the posting of an anti-Muslim film on YouTube.

“The new global public space created by the Internet has opened new challenges, but new opportunities for dialogue also,” said Ms. Bokova. “We know that to achieve lasting peace nowadays, unlike 40 years ago, that co-existence is not enough. It has to be upheld by mutual respect, by genuine dialogue.”