Allen Hertzke: An Office of Religious Freedom Will Bring Canada Admiration

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February 24, 2012

What can Canada expect to achieve by promoting religious freedom abroad?

The question can best be answered by posing it in another way: What can Canada contribute by promoting religious freedom abroad? Before Canada created its office, the United States operated the only diplomatic program explicitly charged with promoting global religious freedom, and its activities inevitably became bound up with its status as a superpower. Thus, critics see ulterior motives or find cases of inconsistency or hypocrisy where U.S. strategic interests clash with its human-rights policies. Because Canada’s foreign policies are not tainted in this way, it is in a position to uphold international law on religious freedom with great clarity. By making this contribution, Canada will gain the admiration and respect of a growing global network of human-rights groups, religious-freedom advocates, scholars, religious dissidents, and heroes of conscience.

There is also a powerful national-security rationale for supporting international religious freedom. We know from the latest research that militant religious movements and transnational terror networks spring from societies that deny religious rights or persecute religious minorities. In a world of fervent religion, the only antidote to violent fanaticism is expanding regimes of tolerance where religious energies are channelled into civil-society engagement and healthy competition, where religious communities, in the words of the Quran, can “vie one with another in virtue.”

Would atheists be protected by Canada’s office?

Yes. The reigning document for international law on religious freedom, which Canada’s office will uphold, is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

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.

As is clear in this declaration, robust religious freedom recognizes the rights of persons to explore, question, or change their religion or beliefs. Not only does this declaration implicitly protect the rights of doubters or non-believers, but empirical evidence on the ground also suggests that religious skeptics are most safe where religious freedom is robustly protected. Atheists or questioners are most vulnerable in theocratic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, or in autocratic regimes that curry favour with dominant religious communities to stay in power.

Is there a difference between a government promoting religious freedom within its own borders and abroad?

Yes. There is a difference between a government protecting religious freedom within its borders – through constitutional or legal provisions – and advancing it abroad through diplomacy. The difference lies in the fact that a government is able to enforce domestic laws that protect the freedom of conscience, belief, and religious exercise, and by that means educate citizens about the value of toleration and pluralism. A nation does not have that enforcement power abroad, so it must rely on the diplomacy of moral suasion and appeals to the self-interest of other sovereign states. But a key lever is international law, which clearly establishes religious freedom as a universal right that all members of the United Nations are obligated to uphold.

In establishing an Office of Religious Freedom, will the Canadian government implicitly place religious freedom above other human rights?

No, because human rights reinforce each other. Governments and international organizations launch all sorts of special human-rights campaigns and programs – for women’s rights, worker’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights, refugee rights – so there is precedent for special emphasis. Moreover, the promotion of human rights internationally is always vulnerable to strategic calculations of nations, so to the extent that religious-freedom advocacy brings new energy to rights campaigns, it will enhance the broader human-rights cause. Critics of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act, which established the State Department Office, commonly expressed the concern that it would elevate religious freedom above other human rights. But eventually, secular human-rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, came to welcome the American initiative because it brought new religious allies to the human-rights cause.

Religious freedom is a potent human right because it encompasses so many other rights – the freedom of speech and assembly, of belief and conscience, the right to own property and form civil-society organizations, and the right of democratic participation. Moreover, we know from research by Brian Grim and Roger Finke that religious freedom vitally contributes to civil liberties, democratization, women’s status, economic development, inter-religious amity, civil peace, and regional stability. It is also a critical check on the abuse of state power, which was why James Madison and other formative thinkers viewed religious liberty as the “first freedom” worthy of its pride of place in the Bill of Rights.   

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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