Religious Freedom in the EU External Action Service: new Guidelines
The EU Foreign Affairs Council has adopted the “EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief“, a practical non-binding handbook for its EU Delegations and Representations.
The EU Guidelines on religious freedom were adopted on 24 June, as a result of the awareness of the increasing importance of the religious factor in international relations, and the strategic place of religious freedom in broader freedoms. The US professor Brian J Grim offers evidence to correlate restrictions in religious freedom with negative impacts on peace and such social goods as health.
The EU here follows, in a quite different manner, the example of the USA which has had since 1998 an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Canada similarly opened an office on international religious freedom in February 2013.
The EU Guidelines aim to provide tools to be used in the EU’s relations with third-countries, though not within the EU itself. Their content results from contradictory visions of Member States concerning the place of religious freedom in the public sphere: on the one hand there is the combative and strict French “laicité”, on the other hand more cooperative models elsewhere. No easy compromise exists between these different visions.
European Court of Justice delivered a valuable clarification in its judgment of 5 September, 2012. An article in Europe Infos has previously argued that this strengthens religious freedom as an essential element of this that freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy.
Other factors, however, reveal a different perspective on the place of religion in the world: the mainstream media, progressive social secularisation, a more individualistic approach to religion, and so on.
In fact, 88% of the global population count themselves as religious believers in some form - a far higher percentage than in Europe. This differential is expected to be maintained.
As noted above, the EU Guidelines were not compiled to protect religious freedom in Europe, but to protect and promote it elsewhere, given the prevailing non-European understanding of the role of religion in the public sphere. That is why the benchmark for assessing the quality of religious freedom is not the EU’s own law, not even the European Convention of Human Rights and the case-law of the European Court in Strasbourg), but international common standards, particularly Article 18 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In the light of that Covenant (and related ones for example concerning freedom of expression, or the right to education) some aspects of the global understanding of the right to religious freedom are not sufficiently reflected in the EU Guidelines. A more balanced approach to “blasphemy laws” would have been desirable, as also but also the reinforcing of the collective and institutional dimension of religious freedom. Similarly, the full protection of the right of parents to educate their children according to their religious convictions, without undue interference by state and non-state actors, is crucial: yet even though this provision was recommended by the European Parliament in June 2012 it has unfortunately been minimised in the Guidelines.
The Guidelines also lack balance in their use of principle of non-discrimination in its impact on religious freedom, avoiding the privileging of one basis for non-discrimination above all others. No less important, the right to conscientious objection, as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of religion, should be recognised in other fields in which morality is deeply involved, such as for example, in the fields of education and health.
The EU Guidelines are a first step towards the full protection and recognition of the right to religious freedom in the world, but further developments are therefore necessary. These Guidelines should be considered as a living instrument. They contain very positive aspects, such as the recognition of legal personality of religious communities, but the leave ahead the he challenge to protect and promote all dimensions of religious freedom as international law foresees.
Furthermore, a comprehensive list of practical tools should also be adopted.
José Luis Bazán