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3 Jun, 2019

ASEAN Parliamentarians pledge to ensure stronger protections for religious freedom

BANGKOK, 03 June 2019 – Lawmakers from across Southeast Asia today pledged to place greater attention and urgency on ensuring religious freedom for all citizens in ASEAN to combat rising inter-communal tensions, religious discrimination and intolerance.

“The overall lack of knowledge about FoRB [freedom of religion or belief] in the broader context of human rights is extremely concerning. We need greater solidarity and joint action among our governments and legislatures to tackle violations of freedom of religion or belief and increase protections for all. Across our region we’re seeing an increase in online hate speech and the spread of discrimination, harassment and violence against minorities,” said Teddy Baguilat, Board Member of APHR and MP in the Philippines.

“There are still many misconceptions around FoRB and why it is important. But we have all seen the catastrophic consequences of state-sponsored religious persecution and stirring of inter-communal tensions in Rakhine State in Myanmar and that should tell us all we need to know in terms of why we need to urgently address this issue today.”

From 27-29 May, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) hosted a meeting of regional lawmakers together with key stakeholders in Bangkok aimed at increasing collaboration to advance FoRB in Southeast Asia. The lawmakers, from Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, Timor Leste, and Malaysia, are members of the Southeast Asia Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (SEAPFoRB), a working group established under the framework of a joint project of APHR and IPPFoRB, committed to strengthening strategic parliamentary coalitions and multi-stakeholder partnerships to improve FoRB protection in the region.

Parliamentarians, CSOs, representatives from regional mechanisms and other stakeholders touched on a wide range of issues over the three-day meeting, including the contributing factor played by religious persecution in the build up to atrocity crimes against the Rohingya in Myanmar; the rise of religious polarisation in Indonesia and the threat it poses to democracy and stability there; the dangerous use and manipulation of race and religion in politics in Malaysia; as well as in-depth discussions on the challenges facing governments in combating hate speech without undermining other fundamental freedoms.

“Religion is often used to camouflage hatred. Freedom of religion means nothing if there is no freedom of expression. As parliamentarians, we have an important role in protecting citizens’ rights, and making sure that no one’s opinions are repressed,” said Lena Maryana Mukti, APHR Member and MP in Indonesia.

As part of the meeting, a panel discussion was held on the state of religious freedom in Myanmar, at which H.E. Marzuki Darusman presented the key findings of the UN-mandated Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (IIFFM) and how hate speech has incited violence between religious communities there.

“Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity took place against the backdrop of religious persecution,” he said. He emphasized the importance of addressing FoRB: “Religious persecution matters because left unchecked, it leads up to atrocity crimes. This is a condition that is not unique to Myanmar but to the region as a whole.”

The Chair of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the Representative of Indonesia to the AICHR also discussed their roles and plans in the promotion and protection of FoRB, along with the limitations they are faced with due to ASEAN’s principles of non-interference and consensus decision making. Participants also addressed strategies and specific ideas for collaborative efforts to respond to key threats and work towards advancing religious freedom in the region.

“To break the barriers of religious intolerance, we need to challenge everyone to understand that FoRB is for all of us,” said Ms. Liv Kvanvig, IPPFoRB Coordinator, who stressed the importance of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The meeting concluded with a number of key recommendations addressed to various stakeholders in the region, which include the call to develop model guidelines or law on the nexus between freedom of expression and FoRB, to engage social media companies to enhance their community standards to ensure monitoring and regulation of hate speech, and to develop domestic preventive mechanisms, namely early warning system as well as a strong and impartial judiciary system.