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Putting the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom in Context

November 24, 2011 - Janet Epp Buckingham


A Christian pastor in Iran is sentenced to death for apostasy; he was born Muslim and converted to Christianity 30 years ago.

Twenty-four Christians were killed and 200 injured in violence that erupted from a peaceful protest in Cairo.

These two recent, high-profile cases of violence and persecution aimed at Christians garnered condemnation from global leaders. But these just represent the tip of the iceberg. And it is not only Christians who face persecution, although estimates put Christians far in the lead of those persecuted because of their faith.

Religious persecution is under-reported internationally and even nationally in Canada. In fact, one of the taunts persecutors throw at their victims is that no one will even know about their plight, and no one cares. Estimates are that between 150,000 and 200,000 Christians die every year for their faith.1 That does not include those jailed or tortured. Nor does it include those of other faiths.

It is not true that no one cares. Numerous organizations investigate, track, and report on religious persecution. Every general human rights treaty includes freedom of religion. There are thus United Nations bodies that report regularly on religious freedom around the world.

Despite its strong commitment for protection and promotion of human rights, Canada's foreign affairs department has long had a spotty record regarding religious freedom. The campaign promise in the 2011 federal election to create an Office of Religious Freedom may change that, depending on the effectiveness of the office created.

What is the unique contribution a Canadian office can make to promote religious freedom internationally? This paper provides an "assets" assessment for the new Office of Religious Freedom, situating the work of that Office within the context of an existing network of international organizations and institutions. Obviously, what is already being done does not have to be duplicated in Canada. Given the context, I conclude with my thoughts on what that unique contribution can be.

International law

The purpose of the United Nations, according to the 1945 United Nations Charter, is a commitment to international co-operation "in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."2 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration), finalized in 1948, set out the basics of international human rights. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration guarantees:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.3

It took another 18 years for the aspirations of the Universal Declaration to be converted into a convention. It was not until 1976 that the two covenants containing binding legal norms for international rights came into force. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights4 (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights5(ICESCR) are now widely accepted among nation-states. Although both these covenants protect religious freedom and freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion, the ICCPR is enforceable through the Human Rights Committee.

The ICCPR was adopted in 1976 and extends specific protection to religion in Article 18:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

One of the most important UN documents protecting religious freedom is The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief.6 The Declaration sets out in considerable detail what the international community regards as basic standards for protection of religious freedom. It is unfortunate that this is not a convention, as it would then be binding and have an enforcement mechanism. However, the international community was unable to agree on issues like freedom to change religion as part of a convention. As is readily apparent, Islamic nations do not consider freedom to change one's religion as part of religious freedom. Indeed, "apostasy," or conversion from Islam, often results in the death penalty.

International organizations

The United Nations has several bodies that address religious freedom. While one can rightly question the effectiveness of any or all of these bodies, the fact that they exist means that there are international organizations with which a Canadian office can work.

The UN General Assembly can pass resolutions condemning particular human rights violations. These resolutions are non-binding but "name and shame" particular countries. These are generally only used for large-scale human rights violations.

The UN Human Rights Council replaced the Commission on Human Rights in 2006. It was intended to strengthen the UN focus on human rights. The Council is a permanent body and sits for three sessions per year, unlike the Commission, which only sat once per year. It further has a universal periodic review mechanism which puts every member nation under the spotlight once every three years. The Council has been widely discredited as member nations have themselves been human rights violators. As well, it has been a forum for criticizing Israel.

Several other UN organizations report to the Council. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights could, but has not, made religious freedom a high priority. The Human Rights Committee also reports to the Council. Anyone in a country that has ratified the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR may petition the HRC to rule on a complaint of a violation. Canada, for example, ratified the Optional Protocol in 1976 and has had communications from the Human Rights Committee on matters of religious freedom. These decisions are not binding but it is a black mark for a country to have a communication finding that it has violated international human rights standards. Countries with egregious human rights records have generally not ratified the Optional Protocol.

Perhaps the most important office addressing religious freedom within the UN system is the Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom7 under the UN Declaration whose mandate is to report on "the various manifestations of intolerance and discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief . . . using the Declaration as a standard."8 Again, the Special Rapporteur reports to the Human Rights Council. He is authorized to communicate with countries regarding allegations of religious intolerance or discrimination and can make in situ visits to countries either on their request or with their permission. The annual report of the Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom is very insightful in addressing on-going violations of religious freedom.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) includes 56 member states from Europe, Central Asia, and North America, including Canada. Its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, among other things, assists member states in protecting and promoting religious freedom.9 In 1997, this Office established the Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief to raise issues and suggest constructive approaches to advance religious freedom.

A Canadian Office of Religious Freedom can work co-operatively, particularly with the Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom, currently Heiner Bielefeldt, with UN and OSCE agencies that have developed a considerable body of expertise.

Like-minded countries

In international relations, particularly at the UN, working with like-minded countries is essential. No country can take on an issue alone. Canada has a history of multilateral action on human rights. In the case of religious freedom, there are several countries that have made this a priority.

The United States of America created two structures in 1998 that make religious freedom a high priority for American foreign policy. The Office of International Religious Freedom,10 headed by an Ambassador at Large, was established in the State Department. It advises the President and the Secretary of State on international religious freedom issues. The Ambassador at Large also serves as diplomatic representative in cases of religious freedom.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom11 (USCIRF) was also established in 1998. It is comprised of ten commissioners who monitor religious freedom and advise the President and Congress. It conducts fact-finding missions and names "Countries of Particular Concern." This body has been criticized for being a "naming and shaming" body rather than taking any constructive steps to promoting religious freedom. The mandate for USCIRF expired on September 30, 2011, and it remains to be seen if it will be renewed.

The US model has certainly put issues of religious freedom as a high priority for US foreign policy. However, it has been criticized for focusing mainly on the plight of Christians. As well, it is not clear how this priority functions in conjunction with other State Department priorities.

The United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has a "Freedom of religion or belief toolkit"12 for use by the FCO. It is posted on the FCO website and is a compendium of useful advice for foreign service officers. It is not dated but appears to be fairly recent as it cites 2008 legal cases. The web page introducing the toolkit states, "Promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief is important to achieving the UK's strategic objectives, especially in preventing and resolving conflict."13

The German Bundestag passed a resolution in 2010 establishing religious freedom as a human rights priority.14 It is not yet clear how Germany will put this into effect. All that can be said is that it appears to be a like-minded country on this issue.

Norway also appears to be like-minded on this issue. In 1998, their Ministry of Foreign Affairs convened a meeting on international religious freedom. The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief15 was formed by the participants at that meeting. It is under the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the University of Oslo Faculty of Law. The Norwegian Ministry funds the secretariat for the Oslo Coalition. The Oslo Coalition works on a partnership basis with other organizations to build capacity to work for religious freedom. While the Oslo Coalition works independently of government, its on-going funding indicates Norway's priority on this issue.

Non-Governmental Organizations

A number of organizations around the world for many years have been highlighting religious persecution as an important human rights issue. These organizations often provide detailed reports of incidents of religious persecution. As well, many of these participate in international conferences and UN meetings on human rights and can support Canadian promotion of religious freedom.

Open Doors with Brother Andrew, Voice of the Martyrs, and Forum 18 were active when there was still an Iron Curtain behind which Communist governments ruthlessly repressed all forms of religion. Their focus was on mobilizing religious communities to take action. These organizations have strong networks for obtaining information about religious persecution, much of it otherwise unreported through official networks.

The Oslo Coalition can be noted as a partnership organization for capacity-building projects the Canadian office may wish to undertake.

Human Rights Without Frontiers, the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission, and the Becket Fund engage in advocacy for religious freedom. These organizations focus their lobbying efforts at international organizations like the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Advice for Canadian office

The Canadian Office of Religious Freedom will have a relatively small budget, $5 million per year, so it must be strategic in its activities. For example, it need not spent its time compiling annual country reports as there are US offices doing that work. While a Canadian office would have a different focus, it does not seem worthwhile to duplicate this work.

Some advocates have suggested that this office should also monitor Canadian religious freedom issues. Again, why duplicate work that is already being done by others? Canada has strong protection for religious freedom through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and human rights codes. Courts and human rights tribunals address these issues. While no doubt the office will be asked about Canadian religious freedom issues, it does not need to spend a great deal of time monitoring issues in this country.

The current Conservative government has made it clear that politicians make decisions about public policy, not bureaucrats. This means that it is advisable for this Office to advise politicians, rather than become subsumed in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The Office would be well advised to have an advisory council comprised of individuals with expertise in religion, law, politics, and international conflicts. Canada is multicultural and multi-faith and will need to draw on the wide variety of expertise available.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Canada has a human rights division as well as regional offices and desk officers covering most countries of the world. These are assets for the Office of Religious Freedom, in terms of providing information about religious freedom cases, and potential recipients of analysis from the Office. One of its key functions, then, will be that of a conduit for information and analysis. It will no doubt provide training and education for Foreign Affairs personnel.

It has become clear that many national and international conflicts have a religious element. The Office could provide analysis and deeper understanding of the religious dimensions of international conflicts so that Canadian responses can take these into account.

Canada has strategic relationships with several countries, both on human rights and trade issues. These provide opportunities for bilateral dialogues on religious freedom. For example, at one time Canada had regular bilateral human rights dialogues with Indonesia, a country which has had numerous religious conflicts over the last decade. The Office of Religious Freedom could reignite this bilateral dialogue and provide expertise on improving religious freedom.

Canada has a unique and evolving role in the world. With a respected voice on human rights and strategic relationships with both like-minded countries and nations that violate religious freedom, it has the potential to play a significant part in developing a stronger role for religious freedom internationally.


1 Thomas Schirrmacher, The Persecution of Christians Concerns Us All (Bonn: World Evangelical Alliance, 2008), 16-19.

2 Charter of the United Nations, 26 June 1945, [1945] CTS, No. 7, Art. 55(c).

3 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res. 217 (III), UN Dec. A/810 at 71.

4 1976 CTS, No. 47.

5 1976 CTS, No. 46.

6 GA Res 36/55, 36 UN GAOR Supp (No. 51) at 71, UN Doc. A/36/51 (1981).

7 See (accessed October 2011).

8 CHR Res. 1983/40.

9 See (accessed October 2011).

10 See (accessed October 2011).

11 See (accessed October 2011).

12 (accessed October 2011).

13 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, "Freedom of Religion," (accessed October 2011).

14 Parliamentary Documentation 17/2334.

15 See (accessed October 2011).

Posted in , Civic Core, Foreign Policy, Religion. Linked to Cardus' research project.

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  1. November 2011: The Office of Religious Freedom
    CPIP - The Office of Religious Freedom The federal government announced this past spring that it would open an Office of Religious Freedom. This issue of Cardus Policy in Public brings together some of the best thinkers and practitioners on religious freedom in North America to give context, advice and encouragement as the office goes online in the coming days.

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