International Order & Conflict

How the UN Can Combat Violence based on Religion or Belief: An Interview with Julie Gregory

Violence based on religion or belief continues to increase globally, requiring UN action to prevent and counter it.
Featuring Julie Gregory

Originally published with Georgetown University’s Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion & Diplomacy

A recent issue brief from the Stimson Center analyzes how UN mechanisms can address the escalating global challenge of violence based on religion or belief. In this interview, Religion & Diplomacy editor Judd Birdsall speaks with Julie Gregory, a co-author of the report along with Aditi Gorur. Gregory is a Research Associate with the Protecting Civilians in Conflict Program.

Judd Birdsall: The data from the Pew Research Center indicates that violence based on religion or belief is on the rise globally. What are the main drivers of this troubling trend?

Julie Gregory: Yes, the data shows that violence based on religion or belief is indeed increasing. It is very much a problem in plain sight and runs across religious and belief communities. The Pew Research Center’s data—which measures religious restrictions and religious social hostilities at the global, regional, and country levels from 2007 to 2018—shows an alarming rise of state regulation and government force based on religion or belief around the world, such as in China, Myanmar, and Turkey. Mob violence, property damage, and use or threat of violence to impose religious norms by non-state actors are also growing phenomena. And though the data suggests that the absolute number of religion-related conflicts is declining, such violence continues to have a grave impact on civilians, as seen in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

These conflicts are well known to international policymakers—in fact, they have all featured recently on the UN Security Council’s agenda. Religion and belief also play an influential role in conflicts where current peace operations are located, including in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Jammu and Kashmir, Libya, and Mali.

Policymakers should be aware that religion or belief becomes a dynamic of violent conflict through its use to 1) define targets, 2) motivate the conflict, or 3) sustain the conflict. When defining targets, conflict parties may use religion or belief as an identifier, to specify who is friend or foe. This is even more likely if religion or belief overlaps with other tensions (e.g., political or resource competition) or social identifiers that contribute to the conflict (e.g., ethnicity, nationality, political affiliation, sexual orientation).

Further, religion or belief may motivate or intensify conflict when it is politicized, when religious leaders support violence, or when a society maintains an aggressive discourse on religion or belief. Grievances over religious discrimination may also motivate violence, but additional research is needed to confirm when and where this holds true.

And to sustain conflict, conflict leaders may strategically exploit religious differences—to justify violent action, expand their support base or combatant pool, and harness the authority and resources of religious institutions. 

Knowing this, policymakers should be looking at these dynamics when analyzing a conflict, planning interventions to protect civilians, identifying potential spoilers to peace, innovating conflict resolution strategies, and developing future early warning indicators. By doing so, policymakers can better understand how religion affects conflict in different contexts, potentially leading to new strategies for conflict mitigation.

Birdsall: What can be said about the relationship between freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) violations and social hostilities based on religion? Is there a clear correlation or even causation?

Gregory: When it comes to religious restrictions and violence, what we can say with confidence is that there is a positive correlation between the presence of FoRB restrictions and violent conflict—in other words, they can be found in similar environments. There is, however, no robust evidence that FoRB violations directly cause violence, which is why we see severe religious and belief restrictions in both conflict and non-conflict settings.

That said, many experts agree that higher restrictions on religion and belief can create an enabling environment for religion-related violence, as perpetrators may be less likely to face negative consequences. This seems especially likely in contexts where legislation is lax or lacking on prohibiting violence based on religion or belief, and where the judicial system does not consistently prosecute those who defy such laws. As such, religious restrictions could serve as a risk factor for violent targeting based on religion or belief.

Birdsall: The primary focus of the report is the United Nations. Can individual UN member states also make good use of the report?

Gregory: Absolutely! The intended audience of this report is indeed individual UN member states. This report highlights pragmatic opportunities for member states to take action at the United Nations, whether it is through the Human Rights Council, General Assembly, or Security Council.

Examples of key recommendations included in the report:

Enhancing the capacity of the Special Rapporteur on FoRB, such as providing more resources for thematic research and country visits, including independent follow-up monitoring, and establishing a framework for monitoring implementation of the Rapporteur’s recommendations made in thematic reports,

Mainstreaming language on the role religion and belief can play in conflict and in peacebuilding into related agendas, including protection of civilians; women, peace, and security; children and armed conflict; and countering violent extremism;

Incorporating language on religion and belief into peace operations’ mandates, when applicable: acknowledging the role religion or belief plays in a specific conflict; mandating missions to consider it as a factor in threat analysis and in development of political strategies; and engaging religious and belief leaders in peacebuilding, including women, LGBTQ+ persons, and minority persons; and

Supporting country-specific action to protect civilians where violence based on religion or belief is high or severe, such as in contexts where related atrocities have occurred.

Birdsall: In a recent communiqué the G7 nations committed to “co-ordinated action, messaging, and targeted support, where possible, to defend freedom of religion or belief for all.” It also said the G7 will enhance FoRB promotion in existing fora such as the United Nations. How could/should the G7 work together to reshape how the UN advances FoRB around the world?

Gregory: The G7 has a history of bringing attention to pressing global concerns that then motivates further global action—and FoRB should be no exception. The G7 can use their important platform to shine a light on this problem in plain sight through a thematic declaration, and by doing so, signal and strengthen their own commitments on protecting FoRB for all. At the UN, G7 countries should spearhead coalition efforts that feature a diverse set of countries and that seek to avoid the politicization of FoRB, such as through the International Contact Group on FoRB.

The G7 should also work together to ensure that action on FoRB is actively inclusive of all religions and beliefs, with action not solely focused on Christianity or Islam as can be the tendency. In practice, this means adopting inclusive terminology (for instance, ‘religion and belief’ or ‘religious and belief communities’); denouncing the association of any religion or belief with terrorism, violent extremism, or armed conflict; avoiding the characterization of minority religious and belief practices as purely cultural in nature (including as relates to animists and Indigenous peoples); and ensuring diverse representation in policy discussions and events. Religious minorities, women, and LGBTQ+ persons are often underrepresented in high-level dialogues on religion and belief, so it is especially important to seek out their participation and input.

Further, through the defense of “freedom of religion or belief for all,” the G7 must ensure that action on FoRB maintains all other human rights. For instance, some UN member states have used freedom of religion or belief to justify discrimination based on gender or sexuality. To mitigate this particular risk as much as possible, it is important to feature women, girls, and LGBTQ+ persons in the mainstream dialogue on religion and belief—rather than separating them out.

Birdsall: You highlight UN Resolution 16/18 as an important example of multilateral action to combat religious discrimination and violence. For those not familiar with 16/18, what was it and how does it serve as a model?

Gregory: Resolution 16/18, passed by the Human Rights Council in March 2011, laid out an ambitious, ongoing agenda for tackling religion-related violence and discrimination, specifically by “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on religion or belief.” In relation to violence, it urges member states to condemn incitement to violence and to criminalize incitement to immediate violence based on religion or belief. It also recognizes that open, respectful dialogue on religion and belief can prevent and counter religious tensions and violence.  

The resolution serves as a role model for consensus among both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly (both of which readopt the 16/18 action points and requests for reporting in yearly resolutions), proving that wide UN member state agreement on this topic is possible. It also allows for national application by calling for governments to integrate these action points into domestic agendas, such as by countering religious profiling, preventing discrimination by civil servants, and appointing a section of government to help resolve tensions between religious communities.

An ongoing challenge to 16/18 is that it is nonbinding and thus dependent on the will of states to implement. The resolution is also of immense scope, with some FoRB experts criticizing it for being overly piecemeal and equating issues of diverse importance (e.g., equating stereotyping with violence). And of late, it appears that the agenda may be struggling to keep up its political momentum, with the Istanbul Process—its supporting intergovernmental mechanism—meeting irregularly and self-reports on progress from member states low.  

UN member states should thus consider how to ensure greater responsiveness and accountability to the 16/18 agenda. One step should be to strengthen language on reporting in the corresponding annual resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council and General Assembly. The resolutions currently encourage “states to consider providing updates on efforts made in this regard as part of their ongoing reporting to the Office of the High Commissioner”—soft language that could utilize far greater urgency and import to compel member states to prioritize this agenda domestically and report on progress made. Since 2012, a mere 10 states to date have reported on action to speak out against religious intolerance, and only 49 states have reported on criminalizing incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.

Member states can also take advantage of upcoming dates to reinvigorate action on this vital issue area, such as around the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief on August 22, the fortieth anniversary of the General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (adopted in November 1981), and the thirtieth anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (adopted in December 1992).

Those member states that are part of the Human Rights Council should also lead efforts to convene the Istanbul Process annually (including this year!), as last year’s meeting was not the first to be skipped over. To reinforce and motivate the work of the Istanbul Process, the Human Rights Council could host a follow-up briefing event to share outcomes and lessons learned from it.

Birdsall: The report acknowledges that one challenge of engaging the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council is that both entities have members that are serious violators of FoRB. How can diplomats and FoRB activists deal with this challenge?

Gregory: Getting countries that are serious FoRB violators to take meaningful action on this issue area is hard. When proposing action within either body, member states can use narrower frameworks like “violence based on religion or belief” or “protection of religious and belief communities in armed conflict” to make it more challenging for member states to argue against proposed action or withhold their support. This may be most applicable for the Security Council, where the veto power is a key consideration.

And if forward action is blocked, diplomats and activists should use their networks and platforms to apply greater political and public pressure on inhibiting member states. Member states supportive of FoRB must speak up and address serious violations, regardless of where they occur, as civilian welfare depends on it. And above all, diplomats must ensure that proposed action maintains international human rights standards, including as relates to gender and sexuality.

Birdsall: The report concludes with seven recommendations for the United Nations. Which of these do you think would have the greatest impact?

Gregory: UN member states need to acknowledge the tremendous impact that religion- and belief-related violence has on international peace and security, as demonstrated by the significant number of countries on the UN Security Council’s agenda where high levels of religion-related violence already occur.

I would urge the Security Council to address this concerning phenomenon through thematic or country-specific resolutions. A thematic resolution can serve to define the problem, condemn rising and sustained violence based on religion or belief, call on member states to build domestic prevention capacity, enhance monitoring and reporting to the Council (e.g., call for a thematic global report commissioned by the UN Secretary-General), and frame this issue as connected to other thematic agendas and countries already on the Council’s agenda. The latter could include calling for the Secretary-General to report on this issue in country-specific reports or in the Protection of Civilians annual report, and to conduct ad hoc thematic reporting when religion-related conflict drivers arise.

And in terms of country-specific resolutions, the Security Council should call attention to the role religion may play in perpetuating conflict and draw special attention to related atrocities. Similarly, it should highlight the positive role religion or belief plays in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Ultimately, this report aims to give government policymakers the knowledge and practical ideas they need to advance action at the United Nations to prevent and counter violence based on religion or belief. And it is clear that action is needed now, both to tackle escalating trends on religion-related violence and to protect civilians where it already occurs.

Read the full interview originally published with Georgetown University’s Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion & Diplomacy

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