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Open Letter to the Honorable John Baird regarding the Office of Religious Freedom

    January 23, 2012

    The Honourable John Baird
    Minister of Foreign Affairs
    125 Sussex Drive
    Ottawa, Ontario
    K1A 0G2

    January 23, 2012

    Dear Minister,

    Amnesty International has followed with interest the announcement of the government’s intention to open an Office of Religious Freedom within your Ministry, as well as the subsequent process of developing and establishing the Office.  As I have been quoted recently in various media articles about the Office, I am writing to clarify Amnesty International’s views and to make a number of recommendations.  I would welcome an opportunity to meet with you to discuss these points further.

    Amnesty International most certainly welcomes the initiative as one that stands to make an important contribution to dealing with a very serious global human rights problem, violations of the fundamental right to freedom of religion.  Violations of that right have figured prominently within Amnesty International’s human rights research and campaigning since 1961, the year the organization was founded. 

    Our work to uphold religious freedom over the past fifty years has been wide-ranging. We have taken up the cases of countless prisoners of conscience the worldover, women and men jailed simply because of their religious beliefs.  We have intervened in the face of mass violations of the right to religious freedom, including killings, rape and other violence often carried out by followers of one religion against adherents to another.  We have spoken out about laws that unduly infringe on the right to religious freedom, such as blasphemy and apostasy laws and laws that prohibit or restrict practicing particular religions or establishing places of worship.  We have also noted that violations of the land and cultural rights of Indigenous peoples may interfere with their spiritual practices and thus violate their right to religious freedom.  In the past few weeks alone we have issued Amnesty International Urgent Actions, press releases and other materials, taking up concerns about violations of the right to religious freedom by authorities and other actors in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan and the Maldives; as well as by the Hamas government in Gaza. 

    As such, Minister, I want to make it abundantly clear that we share the government’s view that this is a pressing international human rights concern.  Amnesty International does believe that the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom can help in the efforts to address religious persecution worldwide.  Towards that end, we have a number of recommendations that we hope will be taken up as the Office is developed.

    • Broad, transparent consultation

    To our knowledge, no human rights organizations or experts have yet been invited to take part in consultation sessions.  Unfortunately it has proven difficult to obtain clear information about which faith groups, religious leaders and other individuals have been involved.  This has contributed to a sense of disquiet and uncertainty about plans for the Office. 

    We urge that the government ensure that further consultations draw in a broad representation of interested stakeholders, in addition to representatives of faith groups, and be conducted in an open and transparent manner that provides the public with an opportunity to follow and contribute to the development of the Office. 

    • Human rights framework

    As we highlight above, freedom of religion is a universally-protected human right, enshrined in numerous international human rights instruments.  Like most human rights, it has a close and inter-connected relationship with other rights. As such, violations of other rights are often intertwined with violations of the right to freedom of religion.  Those other violations impact on religious persecution and vice versa. 

    Equally, however, it is important to take account of the unfortunate reality that many religions can be and are interpreted and practiced by some followers in ways that lead to violations of other important human rights.  That includes women’s equality rights, women’s right to be protected from violence and other women’s human rights; as well as the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals.  It extends to freedom of expression and to protection of the rights of other religious groups. 

    Both of these aspects of the relationship between religious freedom and other human rights need to be central to the mission and working methods of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom – the ways in which violations of other rights can lead to or exacerbate religious persecution; but also the ways that religious freedom can be exercised by some in ways that cause other human rights violations.  Situating the work of the Office within a well-developed human rights framework will help ensure that religious freedom is promoted in ways that help to shore up the integrity of the international human rights system more widely.

    • Diversity and inclusiveness

    Due to the difficulties that the media, other organizations and members of the public have had in ascertaining which faith groups have been involved in consultations to date, concern has arisen about the Office being inclusive of all faith perspectives and reflective of the religious diversity that must be at the heart of a rights-based approach to freedom of religion.  As you will be aware, there have been concerns that a the similar institution launched in the United States close to twenty years ago appears to have given priority attention to the persecution of Christians around the world.  We have been pleased to see your comments affirming that the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom will be diverse and inclusive.  Ensuring that further consultation sessions are more open and transparent will help to dispel these concerns.

    • Multilateralism

    Finally, we urge that Canada’s commitment to working multilaterally be central to the mandate and eventual program of the Office.  The Office will benefit greatly from cooperation with other states and close working relationships with relevant UN and other international experts, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. 

    Minister, the Office of Religious Freedom can make significant contributions to helping promote respect for this important right.  Amnesty International hopes that the cautionary notes and recommendations laid out above, including that the Office adopt a rights-based approach, will be incorporated into the ongoing development of the Office.

    Sincerely,

    Alex Neve
    Secretary General