Regional Consultation on Promoting the Freedom of Religion or Belief in ASEAN
Indonesia, 19-20 February 2014
Southeast Asia features a multicultural community that is diverse both in terms of ethnicity and of religion or belief. It is noted that religions and beliefs have been a significant aspect of Southeast Asian society’s life. Most ASEAN member states have committed to guarantee freedom of religion or Belief (FoRB), normatively, in their constitutions and domestic legal frameworks. In the ASEAN context, member states have also stressed their commitment in guaranteeing FoRB through the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights. However, the picture of religious-based discrimination, intolerance, persecution and even violence has shed a doubtful light on Southeast Asian states’ commitment to this particular issue. Restrictions have been imposed and applied which are not in accordance with international law and standards regarding FoRB. Several challenges have been identified in upholding the FoRB and protecting the human right of religious minorities, including secular people, as well as vulnerable groups to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Among these challenges are:
1. Existing domestic law and policy that contradict international and constitutional standards and Member States’ commitment to uphold them;
2. Lack of understanding and misperceptions by the government as well as society as a whole regarding the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief and in particular the rights of religious minorities, including vulnerable groups to manifest their own religions and practise their traditions;
3. Widespread incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence against different religious groups have not been effectively prevented and punished by the state.
4. The lack of reference guide for implementing protection and promotion of FoRB by ASEAN human rights bodies, Member States and NHRI, and also civil society organization who involved in these issues.
Strong and effective legal and practical guarantees to FoRB and a culture of tolerance and equality would make ASEAN a more peaceful, stable and just region. Unjustified restrictions to FoRB have only encouraged religious-based hatred and violence. Religious majorities need to be more sensitive to the minorities, create an atmosphere of tolerance and eliminate discrimination within society.
The Main objective of the Regional Consultation on Promoting the Freedom of Religion or Belief in ASEAN is to share best practices and experiences from ASEAN Member States regarding the implementation of constitutional rights on freedom of religion or belief in ASEAN countries. It is expected that the consultation will come up with recommendations on policy and programs to uphold the freedom of religion or belief in ASEAN. This consultation will bring together the stakeholders of the freedom of religion or belief to include AICHR Representatives, ACWC Representatives, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI), civil society organizations, religious leaders, etc.
Several of experts gave the speechs in this Consultation, some of them: Prof. W. Cole Durham, Jr (Susa Young Gates University Professor of Law and Director, International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU), Mr. Ahmad Taufan Damanik (Commissioner of ASEAN Committee on Protection of Women and Child), and Dr. Denison Jayasooria (Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Secretary General PROHAM, Society for the Promotion of Human Rights in Malaysia) as Discussant, Ms. Alissa Wahid (The Coordinator of Gusdurian) and Mr. K. V. Soon Vidyananda (Secretary General International Muslim-Buddhist Dialogue), and Mr. Jose Manuel S. Mamauag (Commissioner of Philippines NHRI).
Recommendation of the ConsultationThis Regional Consultation have been resulted some recommendation on promoting of freedom of religion and belief, especially on strengthening ASEAN human rights bodies' role in the protection and promoting of human rights:
1. There is a need to develop within ASEAN guiding principles on FoRB addressing relevant stakeholders, especially ASEAN human rights commissions (AICHR and ACWC);
2. AICHR is encouraged to implement its mandate to encourage member states to ratify international human rights instruments, especially ICCPR;
3. AICHR is encouraged to conduct a thematic study on the issue of FoRB;
4. ACWC is encouraged to monitor and to report on the implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on Elimination Violation against Women and Children focusing on religion based violence;
5. Member States should encourage education that fosters tolerance and respect for differences in religion or belief in the pluralistic society of ASEAN;
6. AICHR and ACWC should encourage all Member States to harmonize laws and policies relating to FoRB in compliance with AHRD and UDHR;
7. ASEAN governments and societies are encouraged to mainstream FoRB to build a common perception of the importance of guaranteeing FoRB to create a more peaceful and just society and a more stable region;
8. The legal recognition of particular religions or beliefs must be expanded to accommodate all existing religions and beliefs, including secular views, in a non-discriminatory manner;
9. Member States are encouraged to advance the effective prevention of advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence;
10. Any measures to advance the protection of FoRB by the ASEAN Member States must be taken in a non-discriminatory manner;
11. AICHR is encouraged to create a focal point on FoRB to monitor and evaluate progress on the advancement of FoRB in all Member States.
------------------------------------------------Background Note of the Consultation
During the launch of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009, Thailand Prime Minister, in his capacity as the ASEAN Chair 2008-2009 stated,
“The history of Southeast Asia is clearly evidenced by the quest for freedom and the improvement of the lives of our peoples. Human right is an important component of our people's lives, and it is important for the people-based community we plan to build. But the success of AICHR goes beyond the advancement of human rights and fundamental freedoms as envisaged by the ASEAN Charter. Ultimately, it is all about the commitment of Member States to enhancing the quality of the life of ASEAN peoples, empowering and engaging them in ASEAN's community building process, all of which are the fundamental basis of a genuine community for peoples”. Complete statement here.Universal Declaration on Human Rights guarantees the freedom of religion or belief, which includes the freedom, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, to practice one’s religion or belief, whether through worship, observance of religious customs or teaching. Freedom of religion or belief also includes the right not to have a religion or belief, and to change one’s religion. The 2012’s ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) states in its Article 22, “Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. All forms of intolerance, discrimination and incitement of hatred based on religion or belief shall be eliminated”.
Despite that all Constitutions of ASEAN countries guarantee freedom of religion, however, in practice, the form of restrictions and reductions as well as the legalization of the restrictions and reduction are prevalent. In other word, laws and policies related to freedom of religion contradict its Constitutions. Although different in its forms, discrimination against certain religion is a common phenomenon in ASEAN countries nowadays, as expressed by Prime Minister Hun Sen during Cambodian chairmanship in ASEAN,
“We have seen that religious conflict has been spreading in the world and it has just flowed into our ASEAN region... Practically, violence and mutually brutal killings among different religious believers in some of ASEAN member states in the recent past are a new event that is attracting interest from international community.” Full statement hereVulnerable groups, especially minorities in a number of countries in ASEAN have experienced discrimination, violence, and all forms of human rights violations simply because of their ethnicity or belongin to certain religious minority. ASEAN region also witness that the violations against religious freedom will trigger or the result of violation of other rights. This is the case how freedom of religion is interlinked with the guarantee of freedom of expression.
It is with this backdrop, Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) in cooperation with Indonesia’s Representative to AICHR, to organize a two-day Dialogue bringing together AICHR Representatives, ACWC Representatives, civil society groups, victims organizations, national human rights institutions, UN Special Rapporteur, academes, media and government officials and the ASEAN Secretariat to discuss the status of freedom religion and belief and to come up with collective action plan as well as with recommendation for ASEAN organs to further respect the freedom of religion and belief. This regional consultation is a continuation from the regional meeting that was organized by HRWG on November 2012 with civil society organizations in ASEAN countries.