Efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief

Freedom of religion or belief means that all people have the freedom to practise their religion or belief, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. It also covers the freedom to convert to another religion, to question another’s religion or belief, or to have no religion or belief.

The right to freedom of religion or belief has its basis in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Article 18 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Freedom of religion or belief is closely linked to other human rights, such as freedom of expression, the right to privacy, freedom of association and assembly, and gender equality. Promoting freedom of religion or belief is a priority area in the Norwegian Government’s work involving international human rights. 

Why is this important?

Violence, intolerance and discrimination based on religious affiliation or faith is a significant problem, even in established democracies. Religious minorities are most often affected, and may find their freedom of religion or belief restricted in relation to the religion of the majority of the population. This can also apply to minority groups within the majority religions. In some countries, however, the religious majority population is subjected to discrimination by a ruling minority. Sometimes, freedom of religion or belief is misused to limit or deprive groups or individuals of their social or political rights, as in the case of practices that discriminate against women, or by preventing access to health and education systems. States can also use freedom of religion or belief as a pretext to justify measures that violate fundamental human rights.

The pressure on freedom of religion or belief is greatest in times of major political and economic upheaval, when differences of religion or belief can be used politically to split the population and consolidate a power base. Developments in the Middle East have shown that violent conflicts can arise where religious minorities are systematically persecuted or targeted in mass killings.

The right to freedom of religion or belief protects individuals, not ideologies or religions. The Norwegian authorities are working to promote freedom of expression and counter hate speech. Banning religious criticism may lead to censorship on religious issues, to the detriment of religious minorities, non-believers or converts, human rights defenders and journalists.

What is Norway doing?

The Norwegian Government’s international efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief are founded on a human rights approach. The Norwegian authorities work to promote freedom of religion or belief at the multilateral level and bilaterally, with particular emphasis on the rights of religious minorities. Long-term awareness-raising activities and the involvement of religious and faith-based organisations are necessary in order to improve the situation of religious minorities. Norway cooperates closely with civil society organisations and like-minded countries in this work. The Section for Human Rights, Democracy and Gender Equality at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has responsibility for these efforts, which are coordinated by a special representative.

These efforts include political dialogue, cooperation with international organisations and networks, agreements with a number of Norwegian and international organisations that work with freedom of religion or belief and the rights of religious minorities, and implementation of measures at country level. Such measures may, for example, involve training in freedom of religion or belief issues and the rights of minorities, and cooperation between parliamentarians in different countries. Importance has been attached to close contacts with Norwegian religious communities, human rights organisations and research institutions, to draw on their expertise, networks and engagement. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also participates in several international networks.

At the local level, Norway participates actively through its embassies in individual countries. The issue of discrimination against religious minorities has been raised at a political level with several countries.

These efforts have helped to increase the focus on UN activities to promote freedom of religion or belief. A set of guidelines concerning this issue has been drawn up here.  In 2019, a goal hierarchy for Norway’s international efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief was drawn up. This is being tested out in 2020 in collaboration with partners.

In autumn 2018, a national conference on promoting freedom of religion or belief as an integral part of foreign policy was held in Oslo. The conference served to increase interest in this area and provided valuable input to the efforts of the Foreign Service in this field.

Norway’s priorities

  • work to ensure that national authorities promote and respect freedom of religion or belief, both in legislation and in practice, and to improve the situation of religious minorities;
  • work to ensure that religious and belief groups respect human rights, both within their own groups and in relation to society as a whole;
  • seek to ensure that respect for religion does not limit freedom of expression, or otherwise restrict the rights of girls and women or other human rights;
  • participate actively in international efforts to promote Holocaust remembrance. Norway is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an inter-governmental organisation whose mandate includes education, research and the preservation of war monuments.

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