The Freedom of Religion: A threat to global security, or a means of enhancing it?

By Prof Sir Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law (University of Bristol Law School) and Chair, United Nations Subcommittee for Prevention of Torture.*

N White, Genesis (1999).

In recent years the relative importance of religion as an issue of legal and political significance has increased considerably.  For example, it took nearly forty years before the first human rights case concerning freedom of religion or belief came to be considered by the European Court of Human Rights; and in the 1990s official reports of the Council of Europe could express surprise that religion was still proving to be an important political factor in some parts of Europe. Few would advance such a claim today.

Some put this down to the rise in the numbers of religious believers globally; that is, religion is becoming more important simply because there are more religious believers.  It is certainly the case that there are now more people with religious beliefs on the face of the planet than at any time in history. But this does not explain the rise in the importance of religion in global politics. Nor does the increase in the absolute numbers of religious believers necessarily undermine the argument – so popular in Europe for so long – that religion is becoming increasingly unimportant to public life.

Perhaps this new-found prominence is due to the perceived failure of many modern political communities to be engaging with the issues which are increasingly important to people; deep-rooted questions of identities, values, life-styles, etc. Perhaps the very nature of the political communities to which we belong are being seen as increasingly inadequate for these purposes. Perhaps the ever more intrusive reach of the modern state –regulating ever more areas of social, personal and private life – has brought the state into too close a proximity with fundamental aspects of personal autonomy or identity. Whereas in the past it might have been the state which emancipated the individual from the hold of religious institutionalism, it may now be that, in some parts of the world, it is religion which provides a mechanism through which individuals can seek to escape the intrusions of the state on matters of personal beliefs, morals, lifestyles, etc. But whatever the reason(s), what remains is the fact that it is of increasing significance.

What does this mean for international security? When religion or belief becomes implicated in security issues, the consequences are likely to be difficult, dangerous, and destructive. There is now plenty of evidence to suggest that conflicts with a religious dimension tend to last longer, be more costly in terms of lives lost and damage caused, and take longer to recover from than other forms of conflicts. They are much, much harder to resolve, to repair, and to restore. Moreover, the sad truth is that once ‘religion’ enters into a conflict situation, it is very difficult to remove it. This suggests that it is absolutely imperative that approaches are taken which seek to limit the likelihood of religious identities and identifications assuming prominent roles in conflictual situations.

This is not a new insight. Indeed, the birth of the ‘modern’ international system of nation states is often seen as stemming from the Peace of Westphalia at the end of the Wars of Religion in Europe in the 17th Century – and this, in essence, tried to address precisely this problem by seeking to ensure that states were not identified with the religious beliefs of their populations and the differences of religion or belief should not be seen as providing a legitimate reason for conflict between states, The international ‘public space’ was not to be a place in which disputes concerning religious belief or affiliation were to be played out.

In a sense, recent human rights thinking has been similar: seeing the domestic public realm as an area which ought to be ‘neutralised’ from the influence of religion as a means of lessening conflict within the community. But the expanding reach of the state in modern societies is putting this approach under pressure: the place of religious belief in the lives of believers has, arguably, been pushed back by the state too far, and there is now a reaction. In short, the balance is wrong. And it is important to get the balance right, since societies which respect the freedom of religion or belief in accordance with international standards will be societies in which it is very much harder to make appeals to religious belief for the purposes of generating or fuelling conflict.

Some argue that granting religious rights to others merely fuels tensions, rather than lessening them, as it can result in the unravelling of traditional ways of life, undermining shared social practices, values, and so on. In my experience, this tends to happen when the application of the human rights framework is not properly understood or not properly applied. Understandably, when this happens, it is often subject to criticism. But this does not mean that the entire exercise is flawed. At the end of the day, securing a more peaceful, stable and secure world requires there to be more peaceful, stable and secure states. And all the evidence is that those states which find the right approach to balance the rights of its citizens in a way which commands general acceptance are more peaceful, stable and secure. Beliefs – religious or otherwise – go to the heart of a person’s identify: to their very essence. Systems which fail to respect the space for such beliefs are – bluntly – just stocking up problems for themselves. They are also stocking up tinder for potential conflicts to come, by creating the circumstances in which it becomes possible for religion or belief to become a part of any conflictual situation which may arise.

It seems to me that ensuring the proper respect for the freedom of religion or belief is an absolute pre-requisite for enhancing global security. By lessening the likelihood of conflicts becoming understood in terms of religious difference, as well as by lessening the likelihood of conflicts occurring because of religious difference – it enhances the capacity of the international community to respond effectively to those conflicts which do, unfortunately, occur. No-one fights over things which are not thought important – but religion or belief is far too important to run the risk of being fought over at all.


* This post is based on a recent talk given at the fifth annual conference of the African Consortium on Law and Religion Studies. Readers interested in this topic will find insightful analysis in the book co-edited by Prof Sir Malcolm Evans: M Evans, P Petkoff & J Rivers (eds), The Changing Nature of Religious Rights under International Law (OUP, 2015).

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