Address by Parliamentary Secretary Dechert to the Conference on Freedom of Religion in Kazakhstan

March 19, 2013 - Astana, Kazakhstan

Political and Legal Aspects of the Freedom of Religion

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It is an absolute privilege to speak to you about Canada’s commitment to promoting religious freedom around the world.

As you know, around the world, violations of religious freedom are widespread, and they are increasing.

In Iran, Bahá’ís and Christians face harassment, imprisonment and, in some cases, death.

In Pakistan, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus are vulnerable to persecution and violence.

In China, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners are subjected to repression and intimidation. Some Christians, who worship outside the government-approved boundaries, are driven underground and some of their leaders are arrested and detained.

Sadly, these horrors are not restricted to these countries. We can point to the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt, Shiite Muslim pilgrims in Iraq or Christian worshippers in Nigeria—the list goes on and on.

In the face of these injustices, Canada has not been silent. And we have not sat idly by.

Just last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the establishment of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom to help advance Canada’s principled foreign policy.

The Office will advance policies and programs that protect and promote freedom of religion and belief. It will advocate the Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance around the world.

Canada’s responsibility is clear. As citizens of a free country, we have a solemn duty to stand up for what is right and just. Indeed, we are uniquely placed to protect and promote religious freedom worldwide.

Ours is a pluralistic country of many cultural heritages and religions. But Canadians and people around the world share a common humanity. As such, it is our common duty to defend the rights of the afflicted and give voice to the voiceless.

As a free and democratic society, we know that democracy will not and cannot find fertile ground in any society where notions of the freedom of personal conscience and faith are not permitted.

We believe—and research shows—that when religious freedom, pluralism, peace and security are fostered, the ground is fertile for the growth of strong democratic institutions and long-term prosperity. Individuals who are free to practise their faith in safety and security are also free to contribute to the economic, cultural and political development of their nation—for the benefit of all.

But what does this really mean? In a community of nations, how can we find common ground to promote freedom of religion or belief?

We can look to existing human rights instruments for a way forward.

For instance, the right of the individual to freedom of religion is enshrined in articles 2 and 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in articles 18, 24 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells us:

“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.”

Or we can look to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, which commits its parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, as well as electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial. Specifically, if we look at Article 18, we see that:

  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.

Whether we are looking at the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the message is clear: each state has a responsibility to respect freedom of religion.

And yet religious minorities face increasing violence and persecution around the world.

Perhaps, then, I can point to the Canadian experience as an example of how pluralism can bind diverse people together.

Most of the word’s nations are, like Canada, composed of diverse ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious populations.

Pluralism allows each one of us to retain our cultural, linguistic and religious heritage within a framework of shared citizenship.

Regardless of your faith or heritage, you can come to Canada and practise openly and without prejudice, without persecution.

We invite others to join us—to take a principled stand against religious persecution. Now, more than ever, we have to stand up for what is right and just. The facts demand it.

A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has found that one third of the countries in the world have high or very high restrictions on freedom of religion. As some of the restrictive countries are very populous, this means that nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions. This is staggering.

Canada is prepared to lead, and we will stand with our partners and allies, many of whom are here today, to promote the dignity of the human being.

We do so knowing that societies that protect religious freedom are most likely to protect other fundamental freedoms.

We do so recognizing that it is no coincidence that religious freedom is prominently featured in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other declarations.

And we do so knowing that deeds go much further than words—that if we do not stand up against injustices, these international instruments are nothing more than just words on paper. We need to work together to protect basic dignity for all, including the very basic right of religious freedom.

As I indicated at the outset, Canada is doing its part. Following extensive outreach with key stakeholders, including faith leaders and religious organizations drawn from our own diverse cultural composition as well as partners around the world, our new Office of Religious Freedom has been established within Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

Under the leadership of Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first ambassador of religious freedom, the Office will promote freedom of religion or belief as a core human right, encourage protection of religious minorities and promote the Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance around the world. The Office will advance policies and programs that protect and promote freedom of religion or belief. It will focus on advocating the Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance around the world. I am very proud to be here with Mr. Bennett today, and I look forward to his comments later in the conference.

Through its actions and statements, the Government of Canada rejects the denigration of religion and the persecution of religious minorities. Equally, we condemn the use of violence. It is of utmost importance that every individual is able to practise his or her faith without fear of persecution. It is by voicing our opinions peacefully and respectfully that we foster greater understanding. However, we must not shy away from our duty to speak frankly when individuals are persecuted.

We look forward to working with our partners around the world to build a more secure future for religious minorities, who have the right to practise their faith and contribute to their communities’ development in safety and security for themselves and their families.

I look forward to fruitful deliberations as we identify opportunities to collaborate on behalf of too many who live in fear.

Thank you.