Freedoms beyond our borders, issue that also matters

Posted on 18. July 2013

by Laura Virué Escalera

Laura VirueOn June 24th in the Council of the European Union, foreign ministers signed the European Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief. This issue has been barely commented on news, taken by economic debate – where unemployment, fiscal policies, banks recapitalization seem to be the only topic that mattered on those days. The Guidelines to Promote and Protect the Enjoyment of Human Rights by LGBTI Persons approved the same day did not receive media attention either.

The subject of espionage and whistleblowing is bringing new worries to our foreign affairs ministers, who have to deal at the same time with US administration and with the populism in some South American countries after the Evo Morales’ plane event. Meanwhile European citizens read the newspaper as if it was a novel. Without knowing if astonishment, incredulity or indignation is the word which best describes our feelings, awaiting answers by our politicians as we expect some more protection by the institutions. Then, we turn the view to the south and we see a controversial coup d’état in Egypt with no strong positions taken by Europe, who has become a mere spectator. Who, at best, asks not to commit abuses and regrets the blood.

In the middle of this storm, it is normal that both guidelines have gone unnoticed and only directly affected associations have welcomed them, more or less satisfied with the text. People in general are more worried about the crisis and the future of youth. And watching stunning violent images on TV catches everybody’s attention. Not a lot of people seem to be claiming action from European institutions.

I don’t think we are going to see an increase of participation in the European elections next year, but there is no doubt that skepticism towards EU is escalating. I see a climate of distrust, erosion of internal cohesion and a continuous wonder about the role that Europe plays internationally – especially as EU accounts for a diminishing share of the world economy.

This is why the adoption of these guidelines and the commitment of the 271is a good new that deserves a little bit of attention. It highlights the European Union’s commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, something ignored by the public opinion that only perceived errors and inaction of politicians. This is a successful step in European external action, a reinforcement of our democratic values and the support of these same values worldwide.

Even when freedom of religion or belief is notably protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR, for long European leaders did not seem worried enough about systematic violations of religious freedom in many countries of the world – notwithstanding those with close economic relations like China or India, not to mention some Arab countries. The approved Guidelines aim to promote freedom of religion and belief in third countries and spell out the ideas about religious liberty, proclaiming EU’s impartiality towards religion or belief, which the Union now pledges to put forward in its dealings with other countries in a coherent and effective manner.

Among the most controversial points, the text includes the rights of people holding non-theistic and atheistic beliefs as well as the right to change or abandon one’s religion or belief. The EU will also oppose any religious justification to restrictions on other fundamental rights and, in relation with the right to conscientious objection, the EU chose to restrict it to military service and did not extend it to health services like abortion or contraception. Regarding freedom of expression, the EU reaffirms the right to criticize or mock religion or belief, while promoting respect and tolerance. The EU thus commits to protect individuals’ rights and not religion or belief as such. This implies that the EU will explicitly recommend the decriminalization of blasphemy offences in third countries.

The Guidelines to Promote and Protect the Enjoyment of Human Rights by LGBTI Persons, mean an important step forward, since the previous document approved in 2010 was a non-binding recommendation. The new “upgrade” is mandatory for signatory countries. They revolve around four priorities: eliminate discriminatory laws and policies, including the death penalty; promote equality and non-discrimination at work, in healthcare and in education; combat state or individual violence against LGBTI persons and support and protect human rights defenders. Add to this, last month the European Parliament also adopted a new version of the European Union law on asylum procedures which contains notable improvements for LGBT asylum-seekers.

Those actions show some European leadership in the area of human rights for LGBT people. Nevertheless, an inward perspective the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGTB rights regrets national governments have for 5 years been blocking the European Commission’s proposal for EU directive implementing the principle of equal treatment outside employment banning discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation (also age, disability and religion). There is still a long way to go to achieve equality and recognition of same rights in the EU and this is not the place and time to get into a deeper discussion. I would still like EU to point out there are other members of Council of Europe where instead of advancing, these rights are going backwards. Not to mention those countries where homosexuality is illegal or is condemned to the death penalty.

The respect for these rights is now stated as an essential reference point in the foreign affairs of all EU member countries as well as in internal decisions. For example, some Member States still have -and implement- blasphemy laws. If EU diplomats convert principles into practice, it could make some difference. Especially in small or medium-sized countries that want better relations with the Union, either because they dream of joining eventually or because they need access to trade and aid.

I would like to quote the article ‘A religious policy by stealth’ published in the blog Erasmus in The Economist: “A continent where Christianity, humanism and many other ideologies have flowered should, perhaps, have something to tell the world about religious freedom, if only by sharing its own bitter experience of conflict between religions and philosophies. But such messages cannot be delivered through long and little-read documents. Europe’s leaders need to shout about the subject from the roof-tops, or else admit they don’t care about it.” So, let’s be those leaders, I don’t think this is an exclusive task of those in the effective government.

Finally, I invite you to the debate. How you value freedom of beliefs and LGBTI rights in your own countries? Do you agree with the content of both guidelines? Do you miss something? Do you think this effort is enough to guarantee those rights?

Footnotes:

  1. The signature occurred before Croatia’s accession.