EU-Bahrain Conference: Freedom of Religion and Belief

EU-Bahrain Conference
‘Broadening the Tent: Freedom of Religion and Belief’

Closing Remarks by the EUSR for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore,

Wednesday, 1 June 2022


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon everyone. It is a privilege to address this conference and I regret that I could not be with you in person.

I warmly welcome the multi-stakeholder approach of these discussions. It is encouraging to see that the EU Human Rights Dialogue with Bahrain is complemented by broad multi-stakeholder events like the one we are concluding today. Fostering exchanges between governments, decision-makers and civil society organisations working on freedom of religion or belief is essential and I know that your exchanges have been fruitful over the last two days. I congratulate Bahrain, a country hosting a diverse population with diverse faiths, for its efforts to promote inter-religious dialogue and tolerance.

The European Union is stepping up its engagement with the Gulf countries.  Last month, we defined a new “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf”, a comprehensive roadmap for our strengthened engagement with the Gulf Cooperation Council and it member states, including Bahrain. The EU-Bahrain Cooperation Arrangement of last year has brought our bilateral relations to a new level.  Human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, are part and parcel of this reinforced partnership. I look forward to further engaging with the Bahrain authorities, including through a possible visit to the country in the near future.

Whether we each are religious or not, we all have the right to live and act according to what we believe and what our conscience dictates. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms everyone’s “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”  No one should be persecuted or privileged because of their religion or belief. And of course freedom of religion or belief should never undermine other rights, nor be used as a justification for violence, bigotry or discrimination.

Freedom of religion or belief has many dimensions and it intersects with other human rights. Around the world today, we are seeing that freedom of religion or belief is increasingly a marker for how effectively countries promote and protect the rights of their people. Religion itself can be a channel for the promotion of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

This is why the promotion of freedom of religion of belief remains a central part of the European Union’s work on human rights and a strong feature of my mandate as EU Special Representative for Human Rights.

Through the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020 to 2024, we have stepped up action to prevent and combat all forms of discrimination, intolerance, violence and persecution against people based on their exercise of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. We do this in different ways and using all the tools at our disposal.  We call on all countries to protect the right for everybody to have or not have a religion or belief, to manifest or to change their religion or belief and we condemn the criminalisation of apostasy and the abuse of blasphemy laws.

We take a public stance through statements, but we also raise our concerns directly with governments through our human rights dialogues. For example, the 5th round of the informal human rights dialogue with Bahrain in February last year allowed for a frank and substantive discussion on several issues, notably the death penalty, the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression and of course, freedom of religion and belief. As a follow-up to that meeting, concrete actions points were identified, including a joint event on freedom of religion and belief, which is this conference.

The European Union also works closely with others in the multilateral system to promote freedom of religion or belief.  At the latest session of the Human Rights Council, the EU resolution on freedom of religion or belief renewed the mandate of UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.  The EU fully supports the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur and calls upon all UN member States to issue a standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures.

We are also engaging actively with other international organisations, in particular with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. We continue to work with others in the Istanbul Process, which focuses on practical solutions to combat religious intolerance.

Civil society and human rights defenders are critical partners in all of this work and every day we meet with civil society and human rights defenders, not just in Brussels, but also through our network of 140 EU Delegations around the world.

In addition, we interact regularly with faith based organisations, humanists and atheists, and religious actors. For example, aside from discussing freedom of religion or belief, I talk to religious actors about many other issues, such as humanitarian affairs and peace mediation. Their role is essential in identifying what human rights violations the EU needs to address.

Consistency and coherence on what we do externally and what we do internally are crucial.  Within the European Union we have an Anti-Racism Action Plan since 2020, which contains a series of measures at all levels of governance, and recognises the importance of focusing on the fight against discrimination on religious grounds.

We are aware that the media are contributing to the reinforcement of stereotypes, which in particular fuel the stigmatisation of Muslims. So, with European Federation of Journalists we are currently developing a series of training modules for journalists on balanced narratives and storytelling when covering Islam or Muslim issues.

When it comes to freedom of religion or belief, there must be no equivocation.  An attack on any faith is an attack on every faith. When one community is demonised or discriminated against, it puts us all at risk. When religion is used to undermine another right, all other rights can become vulnerable.

“Broadening the tent” is an important step in expanding and deepening our collective work on freedom of religion or belief. We need more debate and discussion to focus our action, to increase our solidarity and to help those who are most vulnerable.

I thank you for the opportunity of addressing you today.