Council discusses role of education in combating religious intolerance
Monday, 14 March 2011 17:16


On 10 March 2011, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held a clustered interactive dialogue with Mr Heiner Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief (see UN press release). Mr Bielefeldt's report focused on the relationship between freedom of religion or belief and school education. He highlighted the contribution of school to dispelling stereotypes, the issue of religious symbols in the school environment, and religious instruction in schools as the three central aspects underpinning this theme. Mr Bielefeldt acknowledged the complexity of this issue, but asserted that as the main institution where authority was exercised, the school context provided a powerful opportunity to dispel negative stereotypes that were particularly detrimental to minorities.


The Special Rapporteur's report was generally welcomed by States. However, in particular the role of parents and the family in providing or approving religious education to their children was raised by several States, and is likely to continue to lead to difficult debate in the Council.

Mr Bielefeldt stated that schools needed to ensure that academic texts gave a comprehensive overview of various religious traditions, and made explicit reference the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools. Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion – he said - included the freedom to manifest one's religion and wear distinctive clothing, and the freedom not to be exposed to any pressure from the State or school to perform any religious actions. Interestingly, Mr Bielefeldt illuminated several worrying trends in the Communications Report, including the issue of discrimination against converts and religious minorities; allegations of public manifestations of disrespectful acts; attacks on places of worship; and the loss of life against those accused of blasphemy. While the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders presented an analysis of recent communications in her annual report on women human rights defenders, a systematic analysis of communications sent by mandate holders is rare. It is therefore welcome to see that the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief – in addition to his annual report – provided that analysis.

Mr Bielefeldt's report and focus on school education were well received by an overwhelming majority of States. Many States welcomed the Special Rapporteur's 'pragmatic' approach to the problem of religious intolerance, and enthusiastically supported his focus on the school as one of the best avenues to foster religious freedom. Germany and Slovakia inquired what role parents and guardians could play to support these efforts. The European Union (EU), Canada, and the United States, amongst others, strongly denounced recent acts of religious violence around the world, and expressed specific condemnation towards the assassination of Pakistan's Minister for Minorities, Mr Shahbaz Bhatti.

The Holy See stated that public education should not treat religion in a way that lead to rejection of the parent's preference. The delegate expressed concern over Mr Bielefeldt's assertion that 'faith changes over time', and said that such an idea needed a cautious approach. Bangladesh asserted that religious education was not a major responsibility of schools, unless it was specifically a religious school, and that the main responsibility rested with the family. The Russian Federation also emphasised the role of the family, and claimed that the family's value system was one of the most important factors in the cultivation of children's beliefs. With regards to religious symbols, the Russian delegate declared that decisions should be taken on a case-by-case basis in order to accommodate the cultural nuances that exist in various societies. Egypt (on behalf of the NAM) welcomed the Special Rapporteur's conclusions, but requested that he provide a clearer definition of the term 'contentious religious symbols'.

In his closing remarks, Mr Bielefeldt illuminated that most questions and comments raised during the dialogue crystallised around the issue of diversity. While important, he cautioned that 'diversity' was only an acceptable human rights principle if rooted in human dignity and freedom and therefore reflected the broad range of positions that human beings take in relation to freedom of religion or belief.  He encouraged all States to consult with various religious groups when drawing educational curricula, and implored them to find ways to transcend traditional religious dialogue and empower marginalised groups to present their own interpretations of religion. The Special Rapporteur reinforced that while parents are right-holders, they are also duty-bearers and their teaching must be in line with the principles set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child taking into account the evolving capacity of the child.

Moving forward, Mr Bielefeldt outlined four challenges that he would seek to address during the remainder of his tenure: the development of early warning mechanisms to action combating religious violence; compatibility of freedom of religion or belief with other human rights and women's rights; a more efficient connection between follow-up and UPR; and the cooperation of States for requests for country visits. Several of these topics fall squarely within some of the most contentious debates within the Council. This includes in particular the resolution proposed by the Russian Federation on 'traditional values and human rights' at the current session, which is intrinsically linked to the debate on the compatibility of freedom of religion or belief with women's rights.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 March 2011 09:33
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