09/09/2013 12:19 BST | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 GMT

The Spread of Religious Freedom Advocacy, and How to Improve It

Advocacy on the right to freedom of religion or belief (known as FORB) has seemingly become de rigeur for an ever-growing circle of countries in the past couple of years.

The US has championed this cause for years, albeit with fluctuating levels of commitment. Secretary of State John Kerry recently added to existing infrastructure by inaugurating a new office to engage with religious communities, which one former US diplomat heavily involved in these issues, who is a friend of mine, hailed as "a great leap faithward".

In June, the EU's Foreign Affairs Council adopted a set of guidelines on freedom of religion or belief, which commit the EU to taking action against violations of this right. Canada opened an Office of Religious Freedom earlier in the year, led by an ambassador for religious freedom. In Latin America, legislators in Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay have begun speaking out against violations in other parts of the world.

In the UK, the FCO has designated FORB as a human rights priority, and a recently-formed All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on International Religious Freedom is trying to increase parliamentary interest in the issue. Several other European governments, including Italy, have some sort of mechanism to monitor and promote religious freedom around the world.

The coordination and cumulative impact of this growing infrastructure may not yet be overwhelming, but many of these mechanisms are still in their early stages. For advocates in this field, the challenge is to see them working as effectively as possible, combining creative thinking with meaningful action.

I recently spent a few days in the company of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, who apart from the unpaid UN role for which he has infectious enthusiasm, is also a professor of human rights, honorary professor of law, former director of the German national human rights institution and bearer of five academic degrees, including two PhDs. Even on my worst form, I could hardly fail to learn at least something in his company. The title of this post overstates my objective, but with due humility, I would like to share some aspects of his approach which seem to point to a fruitful way forward.

Firstly, Bielefeldt begins with a strong assertion of the universality of FORB and its inter-connectedness with other rights. He identifies two types of people who think they have reason to be suspicious of FORB: those who like freedom but aren't keen on religion, and those who like religion without being committed to freedom.

This is not some limited right for a religious fringe. It is phrased in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as "freedom of thought, conscience and religion": it is our universally-exercised right to think freely, to believe whatever we find persuasive, and to act on our consciences. It is an indispensable part of the whole human rights edifice, and its relationship with other rights (especially freedom of expression) is one of mutual reinforcement.

While the UK APPG group chose to title a recent report, 'An Orphaned Right' (reflecting a commonly held view that it is not sufficiently well-protected), FORB must not be given an identity somehow isolated from the mainstream human rights framework to which it rightfully belongs.

Secondly, in keeping with this, Bielefeldt commends looking for synergies with other pressing issues. He has some creative insights into the relationship between FORB and corruption, which would bear further inquiry.

Corruption, he argues, is a sign of distrust and lack of openness, which are also characteristics of religious intolerance. Corruption forces people to retreat into their own safe networks of solidarity and patronage, to organise for their own survival in a context where they will suffer if they do not - much like situations of religious tension or conflict.

When I spent time with human rights activists in Pakistan before the May 2013 elections, some categorised the candidates as either dangerous for minorities or "only" corrupt - they preferred to tolerate the latter. But there is no clear line; both corruption and religious intolerance are signs of a broken system which endanger structurally vulnerable people. Perhaps human rights and development bodies should be cooperating more closely on these issues.

Thirdly, Bielefeldt is keen to see advocacy groups shift their focus from detecting early warning signs of FORB violations (which he argues is the easy part) to working out better early action mechanisms.

Combating hate speech is an urgent example, as it is so often the precursor of targeted violence. Bielefeldt is a keen advocate of the not-so-snappily titled Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. He enthuses over its conclusion that legislative responses to hate speech can only form part of the answer; that we must also promote more speech, encourage creative usage of freedom of expression to spin alternative narratives of peace and pluralism.

One strategy to spur this sort of early action would be to involve more and more local stakeholders in the process of monitoring hate speech. There are some promising tools available for crowdsourcing data. I recently talked to founders of Hatebase, a useful new database collecting forms of hate speech, explained in this post for a blog I co-curate, and am working with activists in South Asia on a new Crowdmap for communal and targeted violence (still in its infancy), which allows the reporting of hate speech. This kind of real-time, collaborative monitoring should give impetus for positive and well-targeted action against hate.

There is much to praise about fresh commitments around the world to promoting FORB. I hope we will now see growing sophistication in how it is done - and if so, the Special Rapporteur comes recommended as an excellent resource.