In New York yesterday, CLR co-hosted a lunch briefing with Professor Heiner Beielefeldt (left), the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Beielefeldt was in New York to present his annual report, “Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance,” to the UN’s General Assembly. (I attended the General Assembly meeting as well; I’ll write more about that in a subsequent post).
Beilefeldt’s report focuses on the right of conversion as an essential component of the freedom of religion or belief. Although international human rights law grants a right to change one’s religion, the right has proved controversial in practice, especially, though not exclusively, in Muslim-majority countries, which often criminalize apostasy from Islam. In his briefing, Beilefeldt explained that his report identifies four versions of the right of conversion, all of which merit protection: (1) the right to change one’s religion; (2) the right not to be forced to convert or forced to revert to one’s former religion; (3) the right to try to convert others through non-coercive means; and (4) the right of children and parents with regard to conversion. Beilefeldt explained that as Special Rapporteur he has received numerous reports of violations with respect to all four categories; his report calls on states to respect the right of conversion in domestic legislation, as well as in administrative and educational programs.
The briefing included several responses from scholars and members of the NGO community. Cole Durham (BYU) praised Beilefeldt for recognizing that the right of conversion is at the core of religious freedom. Malcolm Evans (Bristol University) joked that “no one could accuse” Beilelfeldt “of timidity” in addressing the controversial topic of conversion, and noted the implicit ethic of reciprocity in Beilefeldt’s report: your right to hold a religion is balanced by the right of others to try to convince you to change it. Peter Petkoff (Oxford Society of Law and Religion) identified a new perspective in international human rights law – that of collective, rather than individual, religious identity — but argued that international human rights law is not yet certain how best to address this perspective. Tad Stahnke (Human Rights First) addressed the abuse of blasphemy laws — a matter Kristine mentioned in her post yesterday — and insisted that it is possible to fight religious intolerance without restricting speech. Finally, Felice Gaer (American Jewish Committee) argued for more cooperation among UN Special Rapporteurs, for example, on issues of cultural rights and women’s equality.