Analysing civic space from a faith perspective

In a roundtable discussion in April this year we invited policymakers and civil society actors across the globe to help us connect the dots between freedom of religion or belief and civic space. The discussion illustrated a need for increased dialogue between advocates for democracy and advocates for freedom of religion or belief.

“Including Freedom of Religion or Belief in Civic Space Analysis” was the title of this high-level roundtable discussion which was hosted by us at SMC – Faith in Development in collaboration with Danish CKU, Act Church of Sweden and SAFFoRB.

The title refers to one of the recommendations from our report Claiming Space for Faith. The report was published last year and investigates two troubling trends that we see overlapping in our work: shrinking civic space and increasing violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

The panelists – including Civicus, Article 19, International IDEA, SAFFoRB, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and several governmental FoRB-ambassadors – agreed on the importance of promoting freedom of religion or belief as an individual right for all, not only for religious minorities. They also agreed that faith-based actors play a vital part in strengthening pluralistic societies.

Defining civic space with or without freedom of religion or belief

But the definition of civic space and its relation to the freedom of religion or belief was more debated. Some suggested that this freedom must be integrated in the analysis of civic space, whereas others warned that this could weaken the whole concept of civic space – which typically focuses on three civic freedoms: freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

How civic space is defined and understood by policymakers has important implications for faith-based actors. Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Research Cluster Lead at Civicus, explained that the foundation of Civicus’ work is the understanding that human rights are indivisible and interdependent. All Civicus’ work is done through that lens. In addition, the state’s duty to protect, respect, and to fulfil human rights without any discrimination play an important role in Civicus’ analysis of civic space restrictions. Therefore, any impact or civic space restrictions affecting certain groups, such as faith-based organisations, is included.

Ambassador Michael Suhr, Special Representative for FoRB, MFA of Denmark, agreed with all human rights being equally important, and recommended that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaged in civic space protection not only place particular emphasis on the fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association, but also include freedom of thought, conscience and religion as a particular important right for civic space. Ambassador Suhr stated that it is unfortunate that the particular aspects of FoRB, so far have largely been neglected in the practical work by NGOs. This increases the risk of systematic disregard for majority groups’ discrimination and persecution of faith-based minorities with dissenting thoughts; but also of individual right holders’ situation as compared to religious groups. He argued that these aspects of FoRB as a human right are not covered by the human rights principle of non-discrimination and equality.

Faith – an integrated part of civil society

Annika Silva-Leander, Head of Democracy Assessment at International IDEA, argued that FoRB is an integrated part of civic space. She also indicated that IDEA’s research shows that there is more respect for FoRB in democratic countries and that there is less protection of this right in non-democratic countries. In countries where democracy is declining, IDEA also sees a corresponding decrease in FoRB.

Other panelists also argued that the experiences of faith-based actors are unique in civil society, as shown in the report Claiming Space for Faith. Faith-based actors can be accused of terrorism or proselytising or be discriminated against in other ways. But there are also examples of how a faith-based identity gives some actors an advantage with which they can claim more space to act, sometimes at the expense of others.

Ambassadors encouraged more links to freedom of religion or belief

Ambassador Tone Tinnes, Special Representative for FoRB, and Minorities at the MFA of Norway, emphasised that her experience from working at embassies in various contexts is that FoRB and faith-based actors are a very big part of civic space. The Norwegian MFA is now looking into the interlinkage between FoRB and gender and would like to see more cooperation between the organisations working on gender and FORB.

Ambassador Jos Douma, representing the Netherlands and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, stressed that the alliance members promise in the alliance’s Declaration of Principles to treat FoRB at home as it is promoted to be treated elsewhere. We at SMC find this to be an important feature of a solid and credible agenda for FoRB from a human rights approach.

More dialogue needed to understand faith-based organisations and ICCPR

The discussion illustrated the need for increased dialogue between advocates for democracy and advocates for freedom of religion or belief. Based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), we at SMC recommend that civic space analysis and programming include freedom of religion or belief together with other fundamental civic freedoms. Read more about this and our checklist here.

Four of the articles in the ICCPR contain fundamental freedoms which are of particular importance to the individual’s ability to freely participate in organised spheres and communities beyond family, state or business: freedoms of thought, religion or belief; opinion and expression; peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions.

Implications of technological development on civic freedoms and civic space

Marie Juul Petersen, Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights highlighted that we need to focus more on the implications of technological development on civic space. Our inner thoughts are increasingly becoming accessible for control, manipulation and restrictions, also in the area of civic space. As such, we expect to see an increasing need to protect the right to freedom of thought.

One key policy process for enabling civic space and ensuring support to civil society is the OECD DAC policy instrument on enabling civil society. We at SMC follow these developments closely with a perspective of FoRB and faith-based actors. With insights from this roundtable discussion and the experiences from our network we hope to contribute to the future guidance for the implementation of this instrument.

Want to learn more?

About faith-based actors, freedom of religion or belief and civic space:

About other definitions of civic space:

  • CIVICUS – a global civil society alliance
  • OECD – The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
  • OHCHR  – The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights