International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief

Ed Brown: IPPFoRB’s “Conscious, Informed, Coordinated” Engagement with Parliamentarians

Politicization of FoRB for Better or Worse

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a conference hosted by the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights and the Oslos Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief (http://www.jus.uio.no/smr/english/about/programmes/oslocoalition/events/politicisation–forb2.html). The purpose of the conference was to analyze different approaches to the context, scope and content of FoRB as revealed by a variety of international declarations, to examine the international instruments and tools available for the monitoring and protection of FoRB, and to discuss how both the challenges and possibilities arising from the politicization of FoRB can be handled in order to strengthen the international legal framework on human rights. The then current UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB, Heiner Bielefeldt provided the opening key note speech (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0GNMaXKmao).

Engaging Parliamentarians

I was asked to comment on engaging with parliamentarians. Here is a summary of my speech:

There are five assumptions that underlie my commitment to work with the IPPFoRB network:

  1. The world is not ideal. It is muddy. It’s noisy. It is complex.
  2. Freedom of Religion or Belief is not only about religion, but also about the right to be an atheist or an agnostic.
  3. People around the world are suffering and facing violations of their rights at least partly because of religion or belief. People of goodwill have an obligation to try to help.
  4. Stealing from Srdja Popovic of the activist organization Otpor – “Hobbits can save the world.” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/08/five-ways-start-revolution-srdja-popovic-humour-non-violence )Small people and small changes can make a huge impact.
  5. There is no silver bullet that will fix all of the challenges.

The challenges to FoRB are complex and transnational in nature. Any attempts we make at strengthening FoRB should take into account that complexity and ideally have a transnational aspect. Therefore a transnational network of parliamentarians.

Why not engage with parliamentarians

But why parliamentarians? Aren’t they all…:

  1. Arrogant and egotistical? Only interested in their own political gain?
  2. Parochial? Preoccupied with only their own religious community and gaining privileges for that group?
  3. Uneducated? Driven by populism and not by facts and rationality?
  4. Short sighted? Only concerned with the next election and not more long term solutions?

All that may be true, BUT, while politicians may be arrogant, parochial, uneducated or short sighted, they are no more so than anyone else, including those of us in this room. They are in fact human beings, just like the rest of us. And politicians are already involved with religion and FoRB questions. Isn’t it better, therefore, for those of us who have experience and expertise in these areas to engage with them in order to strengthen and build the knowledge and capacity of these important decision makers? I believe it is!

IPPFoRB – A brief history

So, what is the IPPFoRB? It all started in Oxford in June 2014 where six parliamentarians met for the first time to discuss if and how they could together do some good in the field of Freedom of Religion or Belief. Later that same year in Oslo in November 2014 about 30 MPs met and signed the Oslo Charter on FoRB (http://ippforb.com/charter-for-freedom-of-religion-or-belief/ ). One year later, in New York in September 2015 nearly 100 MPs met to further strengthen their bonds and signed the New York Resolution (http://ippforb.com/new-york-resolution/ ). Fast forward to Berlin in September 2016 and more than 100 MPs met and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel gave the keynote address on the closing day. Along the way the network has produced 16 advocacy letters (http://ippforb.com/advocacy-letters/ ), seen the formation of several national and regional groups (http://ippforb.com/regional-groups/ ) and made a fact-finding/solidarity visit to Myanmar.

So what does the IPPFoRB want to achieve? Key words here are: Conscious, Informed, Coordinated engagement. The IPPFoRB strives to be an arena that raises the awareness of FoRB issues amongst legislators worldwide. It endeavors to build the capacity and knowledge of legislators on issues around FoRB, religious identity, minority protection and the like. The IPPFoRB wants to build a robust network of parliamentarians committed to respecting, protecting and fulfilling FoRB rights and freedoms around the globe. The IPPFoRB does not want to be just another gathering of people who talk about FoRB; a talk shop. Rather, it does stuff. It stands in solidarity with its members who are living in conditions of extreme challenge related to FoRB issues. Among other things, it writes letters on behalf of those persecuted for their religion or belief. It helps legislators draft good laws and replace bad ones. It encourages members to be firm in holding governments accountable to uphold the law.

To sum up – There may be no silver bullet to “fix” the problems and challenges related to FoRB. Politicians are already engaged with this issue. Let’s be part of helping them engage positively and not negatively. The old adage from the development world holds true here. When trying to do good start with the imperative – do no harm! Engaging with parliamentarians is not the solution, but hopefully it can be part of the solution. Thank you!

Ed Brown is the Senior Advisor/Leader of IPPFoRB project Norway at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.