Throughout history we have often seen that religious minorities are among the most vulnerable groups in society. Today , we frequently hear shocking accounts from the Middle East of the situation for Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Bahá’ís, and Muslim minority groups. Many people are leaving the region. Developments in the region are also making life more difficult for those who have stayed behind. In Africa, too, there is growing unrest. Recently, dozens of people were killed in clashes in Nigeria, in a religious conflict where Sunni and Shia Muslims are on opposite sides.
The treatment of Jews and other minority groups during the Second World War will always be a dark chapter in the history of Europe. In recent years, there have once again been targeted attacks on Jews in European cities. This autumn, the international community was shocked by the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, in the US. And all over the world, asylum seekers who have a different skin colour or faith are being subjected to violence and hate speech.
Norway is not immune to these developments. The Government has therefore drawn up a national action plan against antisemitism and a national strategy against hate speech.
Harassment, discrimination and violence in the name of religion
The brave young Yazidi woman Nadia Murad has become a prominent voice internationally for religious minorities who have been subjected to violence in wars and conflicts.
There are many reasons underlying attacks on religious minorities. There is often a political motive. Attacks of this kind are also common in countries where public institutions are weak, public debate is limited, and there is a lack of space for civil society to develop.
In many ways, the degree of freedom of religion or belief in a country is a good indicator of the general human rights situation. Often, restrictions on freedom of religion or belief are a forewarning of other human rights violations. Freedom of religion or belief is also closely linked to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
Discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation can lead to discrimination in other areas. In Pakistan, Ahmadiyyas are not considered to be Muslims. Nor are they recognised as a religious community in their own right. This prevents them from voting in elections. In Iran, Bahá’ís are prevented in various ways from pursuing higher education or engaging in business activities. Large groups of people are marginalised in their own societies.
A growing number of countries use national security as a pretext for restricting religious expression and the role of religion in the public domain. It is the responsibility of states to protect human rights, but the gap between commitments and practice is widening. This is often due to both an inability and a lack of willingness to ensure that human rights are protected.
One of the most tragic examples we have seen in this respect is in Myanmar, where tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been killed or forced to flee the country, without the authorities taking adequate action.
Human rights are an integral part of foreign policy and development policy
The promotion of human rights has a central place in Norwegian foreign and development policy, and the protection of religious minorities is a priority area in Norway’s human rights efforts.
We are working along several different tracks. Multilateral efforts can be slow and laborious, but they can produce important results. The Norwegian-led UN resolution on human rights defenders is an example of painstaking efforts over several years that have yielded good results.
Norway raises human rights issues in the UN Human Rights Council. We also discuss the situation of religious minorities in our bilateral dialogues with countries where these groups experience discrimination and persecution.
Through our embassies, we are in contact with activists who put their own lives and futures at risk to promote freedom of religion or belief. By working with these networks, we help to strengthen civil society and support vulnerable groups.
Over the past five years, we have substantially increased our support for religious minorities. In 2018, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will spend a total of around NOK 80 million on measures to promote freedom of religion or belief and protect religious minorities. Civil society organisations are important partners in this work, and we have entered into a number of cooperation agreements that will strengthen our efforts in this area.
I have today invited a range of actors to a national conference on promoting freedom of religion or belief. The conference will be the first of its kind in Norway, and will take place on the day of the annual torch-lit procession in Oslo in support of freedom of religion or belief. The conference will bring together experts and practitioners, who can provide knowledge and inspiration for our continued efforts to safeguard religious minorities. Together, we will seek to give this fundamental human right greater prominence on the international agenda.