Defending freedom at OSCE

By Henrik R. Clausen 19 July 2009

OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Coorperation in Europe, is an organisation created to follow up on the Helsinki Accords and ensure their full implementation in Europe and related countries. This is a noble purpose, but since organisations like this have an inherent risk to become narrow worlds of professionals, a watchful eye from the public may be useful to uphold the ideals. At a recent conference in Vienna, EuropeNews was represented by assistent editor Henrik R Clausen, who files this report.

OSCE is one of those great, classical organisations that listeners to news know about quite well. Statements and recommendations from OSCE weigh in heavily in political decision-making and it is thus quite an influential organisation. Participants are 56 countries, which includes Europe, Central Asia and North America, as well as large and small NGO's from the area.

I represented the International Civil Liberties Alliance, which is an NGO based on bloggers and Internet networks with a common interest in upholding law, democracy and individual rights in the free world. We met up with friends from associated NGO's, and Christianophobia.eu and others. Our common goal was to stop dangerous recommendations and raise the issues of the increasing Christianophobic and Judophobic incidents taking place in Europe.

The conference was called Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting: freedom of religion or belief and was held at Hofburg, Vienna, on July 9-10 2009. The conference consisted of three main sessions and five side events. We participated in these:

Round table for Civil Society, a preparationary meeting of NGO's
Chaired by Rev. Roy Jenkins.

Secularism and the Rule of Law are a Guarantee of Freedom of Religion or Belief
Convenor: European Humanist Federation

Session I: From Commitments to Implementation: Freedom of Religion or Belief
in the OSCE Area

Session II: Status of Religious or Belief Communities

Session III: Places of Worship

Round table for Civil Society, a preparationary meeting of NGO's
The first event, and easily the most lively, was a round table discussion for NGO representatives. This was a semi-official side event, in that it had the purpose of producing recommendations for the main sessions. Roughly 100 NGO representatives were there. After an introduction by Roy Jenkins, and Vera Pugna of the European Humanist Foundation, the floor was free for debate.

And who else to take it first, except yours truly? Now, speaking to an assembly of over 100 persons, many having travelled far to get there, is something. One has to be clear and to the point, tactful and interesting. Our first statement was to emphasize the need for religious freedom to be exercised within the framework of the law, and that religious law could not be used as a valid source of law for society at large.

Also the fact that misuse of religion for gaining worldly power, or even to commit crimes, is increasingly giving religion at large a bad name. While our Catholic friends may not have been too happy about that, we found it an important point to make, not least due to the influence of religious law from the Middle East, which tends to be not particular humanitarian.

Further debate elaborated on the rule of law aspect, which was commented upon by many. This was eventually reflected in Recommendation number 3 from the meeting.

Representatives from Central Asian countries were quite active, relating the many problems in their countries, a common situation in states with large Muslim populations. Their problems were obviously genuine and deserving of mention in this forum.

One commenter made the interesting point that rights ultimately belong to the individual, not to groups, and that awarding rights to groups implies the risk of diminishing rights of the individual.

The Danish Muhammad cartoons were brought up, an issue one would think is history by now, since they were first published four years ago, in 2005. A representative of a Jewish organisation proposed the assembly to recommend a “balance between freedom of expression and respect for religion”. That, of course, was an issue we had to address.

Another proposed recommendation was that religious strife should be prevented by mandatory teaching of 'tolerance' in public schools. That is a delicate issue. First, issues of religious strife should really be addressed and resolved by adults, not be pushed upon children. Then, we may come in a situation of “Tolerance is mandatory”, where expressions of non-tolerance, however sincere they may be, would be punishable under the law. Third, the very definition of 'Tolerance' is uncertain, and it becomes an important question who gets to decide over that. Finally, trying to solve the question of religious strife through mandated 'Tolerance' might gloss over, not resolve, the underlying differences, laying the foundation for future problems. While mandating tolerance might sound good on paper, it would hardly be workable in real life. We responded as follows:

In reference to the distinguished speaker suggesting a balancing of freedom of expression and respect for religion, let me make this clarification: I am Danish and know the caricatures very well. The ICLA categorically rejects that there should be any need to create a 'balance' between religion and freedom of expression. Healthy religions should not need any protection against free speech and criticism, and should have no problem tolerating caricature or criticism.
As for the proposed recommendation that public schools should be mandated to teach 'Tolerance', this is an idea that properly belongs to states like the Soviet Union. Not only would such mandatory teaching of children be exploited for manipulative purposes, it would also lead to the actual problems being glossed over instead of confronted honestly and genuinely resolved. ICLA does not consider this workable in any way.

Gudrun Kugler, representative of Christianophobia.eu, proposed that, in the light of the extensive negative opinion religion has been subjected to in recent years, OSCE should recommend member states to make statements underlining the positive nature of religion as such. She might not have considered the fact that this would apply not only to positive, humanitarian religions, but also to strange varieties like shamanism, voodoo or even Satanism. Genuine respect for religion needs to be earned, religion by religion, based on the contents of their creeds, the interpretations of their clergy and the acts of its adherents, not mandated by the state.

OSCE is, by its nature, an intergovernmental organisation. This means that recommendations are passed by consensus, not by vote, and that no mechanism exists to enforce the application of recommendations in participant states. A proposal was fielded that a mechanism should be implemented that would let OSCE react to lacking implementation, but this supranational idea drew no support in the assembly, and was dropped.

The variety of opinions in the session led to a situation of stagnation, where few recommendations were obvious to make. Roy Jenkins called a recess to prepare a list of recommendations for a final vote. The recess led to four recommendations, which were broadly accepted with minor changes. The final recommendations from the meeting were:

1.Freedom of religion or belief should be mainstreamed in the work of ODIHR;

2.Participating States are encouraged to implement existing commitments on freedom of religion or belief according to international human rights standards. Participating States are encouraged to make use of the assistance available from ODIHR;

3.The rule of law should be recognized as an essential prerequisite for full and proper enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief;

4.Participating States are encouraged to actively create an atmosphere in the public space within which freedom of religion or belief can best flourish and in which religious and belief communities can engage in full and fruitful dialogue. This space should be open to all, and the public media can play an important role in the creation of this space.

These quite generic recommendations found acceptance, with the fourth bearing some marks of amendments, to make clear that the state creates merely the environment for fruitful dialogue, not the dialogue itself. The mention of public media was also a last minute addition.

While the recommendations were not particular impressive, the best was what had been prevented. Several speakers, from their points of view and by their standards well-intentioned, had proposed recommendations that were exploitable by religious fanatics as instruments to subvert secular law under religious, or to outlaw free discussion about important matters.

Side event:
Secularism and the Rule of Law are a Guarantee of Freedom of Religion or Belief
European Humanist Federation
The European Humanist Federation had the generosity of sponsoring lunch for attendees of this session. However, more people took the lunch than attended the session, which was populated by a sparse 15 persons. Notably, the representative of the Holy See was present, which prompted some exchanges between the EHF and the HS concerning Catholic lobbying in the European Union.

On anti-discrimination and 'hate speech' laws
The EHF is generally known to be what we call 'aggressive humanists', with more interest in diminishing the role of religion at large than protecting the freedom to practice it. A bone of contention is the subject of anti-discrimination laws, where the Christian organisations were very upset about being required by law to hire non-Christians into their organisations, a move that could severely undermine their whole purpose.

It would seem quite logical that Christian organisations should not be forced to hire, say, Muslims for their organisations, and that sanctioning for having a stated preference for hiring Christians seems an unreasonable intrusion in their freedom to hire the staff they need in their mission. However, that is the state of things in the United States of America today, and that poses a problem for Christian organisations, not least in university campuses.

A further issue is that of hate speech laws. They are at the moment being unevenly enforced, and the representative of Alliance Defence Fund spoke for religious speech being exempted from these laws. That, in the opinion of ICLA, would be unfortunate, as most real 'hate speech' is already coming from various religious sources, and that if these laws make any sense at all, religious speech deserve no exceptions.

If these laws are to be held on record, which is somewhat risky to our fundamental liberties, they should at least be applied without discrimination to all religious expressions. The situation today, unfortunately, is that a certain lenience seems to be applied to Islamic organisations, where even overt racism, anti-Semitism, denigration of 'infidels' and incitement to violence take place with impunity.

The depths of these issues, however, were not really examined at the EHF event, which remained a somewhat uninteresting interlude between the main sessions.

Session I:
From Commitments to Implementation: Freedom of Religion or Belief in the OSCE Area

The first speaker represented a string of NGO's, who requested that in the light of the murder in Dresden (a Russian had killed an Egyptian woman in a courtroom) should motivate OSCE participant countries to take a much more assertive stance against any form of racism and anti-Islamic activities, and crack down on anyone found guilty of or somehow inciting such offences. That was somewhat strange, for not only was it off topic for the conference, also the murder case had not signs of having anything to do with racism, nor was intended as a protest against Islam.

Benjamin Bull of the Alliance Defence Fund raised several issues for Christian organisations:

  1. The misapplication of hate speech laws to stifle any religious expression.
  2. The misapplication of anti-discrimination laws to force religious organisations to hire staff with beliefs and viewpoints contrary to that of the organisation.
  3. Revoking tax benefits on basis of the above, or banning Christian organisations from university campuses, thus severely hampering the activities of these organisations.
State representatives made, as is their duty, detailed statements regarding the situations in their countries. They had some trouble restricting themselves to the 3-minute limit for comments, whereas NGO comments tended to be short and clear, focusing on important principles. An appropriate mixture, and certainly one that gave a significant voice to NGO's, as they were much easier to follow and remember.

The representative of COJEP underlined the evil nature of the killing in Dresden, and urged upon all Western countries to take initiatives to crack down on racism and anti-Islamic activities everywhere.

Several speakers, including the representative of Serbia, pointed out that acts of intimidation, vandalism and desecration of Christian buildings and monuments was increasing, with the extensive destruction of 150 Christian buildings in the Serbian province of Kosovo being the most radical.

Jewish representatives mentioned similar problems, and how Jews had traditionally adopted by making their buildings outwardly modest, yet immaculate inside. While the fall of the Communist states in 1989 had brought them new opportunities, it had also led to a situation of resurgent anti-Semitism, which needs to be countered.

An interesting point was made here: That religion is, by its nature, a challenge to power and a defence against arbitrary authority. While the statement is too broad and too absolute to be considered a hard fact – thus consider how much worldly power the Caliphate and its latest form, the Ottoman Empire, used to have – it does have historical merit. The persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire is a great case in point, as is the Tibetan struggle against Chinese rule and Christian resistance against – and undermining of – the Soviet Union. This space of protecting citizens from arbitrary authorities is a crucial reason to defend religious freedom. Interestingly, this implies that the misuse of religion to seek worldly power should be countered.

The German representative, as is his obvious duty, defended Germany against the grim accusations in context with the Dresden murder. For obvious historical reason, accusations of this kind are most eagerly rejected by the modern German state, which takes great effort to prove itself stainless. It must be rather frustrating to see this kind of rhetoric appear anyway, and surprisingly nobody took the effort to defend Germany in the forum. Thus, we fought for – and won – an opportunity to make this comment:

Referring to several speakers, ICLA agrees that the increasing frequency of vandalism against Christian and Jewish interests is a problem. Examples of these incidents are frequent, from relatively benign harrasment over desecration to the extensive destruction of cultural heritage in Kosovo, as the Serbian speaker noted. This is a severe problem in upholding genuine freedom of religion. ICLA recommends that OSCE participating states acts to protect citizens against such acts of intimidation.
On the other hand, ICLA firmly believes that religions do not need or deserve protection against free speech and criticism.
On a supplementary note: In spite of this being off topic for this conference, speakers have made reference to the recent brutal murder in Dresden. We have full confidence in the German legal system to handle this criminal act, and emphasize that such events, not matter now evil, should not be used as a pretext for assaulting freedom of expression or implementing draconian legislation.

This session, as the next two official sessions of the conference, ended without making concrete recommendations. Speaking interest was significant up to the end, and the moderator had to restrict comments from three to two minutes each, before calling it a day.

In the post-session reception, three Turkish representatives approached me, expression their dissatisfaction over our use of Sam Solomon's “Proposed Charter of Muslim Understanding”, which they claimed portrayed all Muslims as terrorists – by implication, of course, as the Charter requests the Islamic clergy to explicitly denounce terrorism. They brought up other cases, like Timothy Veigh and the Oklahoma bombing. Our response was simple: Islamic scholars should systematically declare that anyone using violence in the name of Islam should be declared non-Muslims, apostates, with all that implies. The Turks had some problems digesting that proposal, and instead requested that we talk about the Crusades. However, when declaring myself willing and happy to do so, they let the matter drop, and instead denounced the war in Iraq. They seemed to want just any excuse to present anti-Western viewpoints, rather than engage in rational debate.

Session II: Status of Religious or Belief Communities
Before we settled for the first session of the second day, the official Danish representative approached me, thanking for the remarks we had made on the first day. Praise is a bit like candy: One tends to consume a bit too much of it for ones' own good, and while she was happy with our statements in the plenary and the fact that an NGO defending civil liberties spoke up, the obvious counter-question came up only later:

Why does the official representative, who is professional and paid to be present, not do so? A core reason for paying tax – and we do that a lot in Denmark – is to have the state defend our constitutional rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly etc. It would be fitting that our official representatives not only are present at the conference, but also speak up for fundamental principles.

In this session, my note-taking ability was markedly deteriorating. The country reports, while relevant, tended to be more boring. Unless one has a professional interest in the subject, issues like the legal status of religious communities in Uzbekistan aren't exactly exiting.

But there are some matters of principle that are very important, not least the relationship between the religious communities and the law of their countries. Uncritically granting endless autonomy to religious communities can easily lead to establishing of parallel societies, where members of these societies – typically women – are deprived of their legal and constitutional rights due to discriminatory religious law effectively superseding national law. This is a serious treat against the rule of law, to which ICLA made the following statement:

Several distinguished speakers have touched upon the relationship between religious communities and the law of the host countries. It is the opinion of the International Civil Liberties Alliance, and our recommendation, that the autonomy be well defined and based on the principle of subsidiarity to the legal framework of their respective countries.
Further, we notice that several OSCE participating states have clauses that prohibit religious societies from teaching in violation of public order. We think no religion should have a need to violate any such clauses, but we do recommend that these clauses be actively enforced, for the benefit of public security as well as for respect for religion, that any violation of such clauses should lead to the loss of religious status of the responsible organisations. Thank you.

Session III: Places of Worship
For the third and final session, we were severely short on time. A speaking engagement in the afternoon meant that we had to leave soon after the session started, but we did hear one interesting statement before we left, by a representative for the Austrian NGO Mission Europa:

Making reference to the topic of building mosques in Austria, I would like to clarify the following:
Austrian law dated 1912 grants recognition to Islam, as long as it is not in contradiction to state law. Unfortunately, this provision of the law has never been enforced.
In this context, it is a legal necessity that any religious organization intend on building a place of worship documents its unconditional obedience to the law. In particular, it is important to provide guarantees that the proposed places of worship will not be misused for teachings or activities contrary to the law. This includes, but is not limited to: Denigration of non-believers, incitement to violence, abetting and aiding criminal activities. Failure to comply with this requirement should lead to the loss of official recognition and benefits as a religious entity.
With particular reference to the currently proposed construction of mosques in Carinthia and Vorarlberg, it has been suggested that zoning laws are being misused to prevent these projects. We emphasize that these laws are democratic and apply to everyone, that their use is just and proper, and that no religious organization should expect to be exempt from these laws.

Thus ended our participation in the conference, which had been the forum of largely civil debate over practical issues and the relationship between religion and law and defending religious communities against various unreasonable challenges, including intimidation and violence from adherents of other religions.

 
 

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