Sussex Academics Discuss Human Rights, Identity and the Role of the State in Religious Belief and National Security

On 13 December the University of Sussex hosted a consultation on the Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) and Security guidance paper, a document drafted by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE comprises 57 member states from Europe, Asia and North America, providing a platform for open dialogue and joint action on security issues. The OSCE addresses a wide range of concerns- including arms control, national minorities, democratization and, in this case, freedom of religious belief.

The FoRB and Security guidance paper has emerged from work by the FoRB & Foreign Policy Initiative (FoRB&FPI), based at the University of Sussex. The consultation, hosted by FoRB&FPI convenor and senior lecturer of International Relations Fabio Petito, is one of many taking place in countries throughout the OSCE. The meeting convened a day of discussion with lead drafters? Faisal Devji and Silvio Ferrari, alongside experts spanning anthropology, IR, law and psychology from the University of Sussex and other prominent UK institutions.

Increasing need to protect religious rights
Petito opened the discussion, highlighting that recent increases in religion based violence, complexity of human rights embedded at both state and international levels and issues faced by fragile states are contributing to rising pressure on religious rights and security. As governments attempt to utilise different approaches to tackle the issue, it is important that political and human aspects are considered to ensure that religious rights are protected in this rapidly evolving environment. Devji stressed that the FoRB paper aims to not only address policy makers in understanding and tackling these considerations, but to open discussion with civil society and religious leaders more widely. The subsequent points covered during the consultation highlighted opportunities for the paper to be strengthened to be effective in achieving these important aims.

Defining actions, opinions and human rights
One of the first issues touched upon was the disengagement between actual actions versus the perceived ethical and moral responsibilities of a group. Definitions of action and opinion might blur and change context completely between OSCE countries, as laws or freedom of religion differ between states. The same is true of human rights, with the point being raised that the paper bases this concept on the experience of western liberal democracies in spite this not being universal.

It was emphasised that only actions are prosecutable, and whilst the legal dimension of the paper is important this should be balanced with moral and ethical aspects involved in tempering actions that might threaten security. It was also acknowledged that whilst a western liberal definition of human rights may not apply to all, given the need for 57 states to agree to the papers terms this approach prevents the picking apart of other definitions or assumptions.

Role of state in intervention
The role of the state and legal systems in maintaining security versus wider organisations was also addressed, in terms of appropriate division of responsibility. Such an understanding is important in operationalising any suggestions that the paper suggests, as outcomes will require action from religious groups and committees as well as the state.

Whilst the state has intervened in policing hate speech in the past, as with fascism, understanding if the same could occur for religion or other rights (such as those around climate change impacts) is yet to be explored. Many complexities may arise- for example a source of religious terrorism may be driven by high levels of religious rights and freedom, as religious groups are able to live alongside each other but disagree with the lifestyle of the other. In this case intervention at a more grassroots level to promote integration may be more effective and enforceable than a top down approach.

Authors agreed that perhaps greater attention could be paid to the role of activists, the media and religious leaders in terms of understanding and actioning appropriate measures to increase state security.

Issues of political and religious identity
The issue of untangling someone’s religious identity from other parts of their life was also discussed- highlighting that often complex political, religious and social beliefs are all interwoven into one. Whilst religion may appear to be an increasing contributor to security risks, this could be due to providing the language and tools to express their purpose more broadly- as previously provided by Marxist notions.

In assuming that religion can be treated as a single embedded element may allow states to advance quite a narrow notion of what religion is, which could ultimately be exploited. In addition, this approach potentially freezes an individual’s identity, viewing them through a very narrow lens and removing the complexity of reality.

This issue is of particular interest when considering that hate speech and other actions are generally more likely to arise from nationalistic tendencies, meaning that a religious group may be targeted as a consequence being viewed as an immigrant or of a certain ethnicity as opposed to their faith.

Balancing extremism, conservatism and freedom of speech
The need to consider that both extreme and conservative religious actions impact security was also stressed. For example, conservative Christian and Muslim attitudes towards the gay community might lead to negative actions towards this group based on sexuality. It was highlighted that conservative attitudes can also impact the rights and security of women, wherein religious texts may condone them being beaten by their husband for example.

Without infringing on freedom of speech and expression however it is difficult to prevent the teaching of religious aspects that may lead to negative actions. It was suggested that releasing an advisable public discourse might be the best approach to take, as opposed to aiming to enforce curtailments on freedom of speech. As intervention can be justified if actions do pose a national security threat, such as with an incidence of conservative Christians partaking in a Quran burning day in America, then there is the ability to engage at these critical junctures if a threat to security is perceived.

Use of language
Finally, there were several challenges made to the language that should be used to express the complex issues outlined above. For example, the use of terrorism in Europe has widely come to refer to the actions of Islamic as opposed to Christian extremists. The paper should ensure that all religious extremism is addressed equally, such as the far right Catholicism that is rising in Poland, by challenging mainstream meanings.

The document was praised in that it framed actions as a ‘choice’ instead of utilising more legalistic human rights related language, allowing it to read as a relatable document for its multiple audiences. It was noted however that it should be made clear which actions described would be expected to be implemented immediately as opposed to action as an aspiration for the future.

The discussion of the FoRB document centered around several complex philosophical and anthropological issues, including policing opinions and speech, the multiplicity of human identity and the reproduction and utilisation of particular words was extremely interesting. Addressing such nuances is extremely important in developing a paper relevant, equitable and usable for peoples across 57 states. The paper will continue through several more draft iterations, and it is certain that academics and the University of Sussex and other UK institutions will help to shape the final outcome to these ends.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Policy, Rights
One comment on “Sussex Academics Discuss Human Rights, Identity and the Role of the State in Religious Belief and National Security
  1. Thomas says:

    Dear Anna,

    Thank you very much for this very informative post. I have a huge interest in Human Rights and National Security. Can you please post updates on any new meetings on this topic?

    Many thanks,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *