Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Southeast Asia: the Urgency of Respect, Fulfilment and Protection of FORB in an Integrated ASEAN Community

Bangkok, 4 October 2015—The HRRC participated in a Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) in Southeast Asia held on 30 September to 1 October 2015 by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), and Boat People SOS (BPSOS) in Bangkok. The conference was attended by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom on Religion or Belief, Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt, as well as human rights defenders, members of religious groups, rights groups, UN agencies, National Human Rights Institutions and other government agencies from ASEAN member states. Also present at the conference were representatives from the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Rights of Women and Children.

HRRC’s Research and Project Coordinator for Rule of Law, Aviva Nababan, was afforded the opportunity in the conference to present the Center’s latest baseline research, “Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in ASEAN.” Presenting the key findings in the study’s synthesis report, Ms. Nababan elaborated on factors that tend to aggravate religious-based persecution in ASEAN member states, namely politicization of religion, ethno-religious nationalism, and weak rule of law. She also outlined some good practices identified in the research, namely grassroots mobilization to counter extremism, tolerant religious leadership, community engagement to foster inter-faith communication, government-mediated inter-faith dialogue, and good governance as an alternate modality to gain political support in a democratic society to stave off politicization of religion.

The three-day conference discussed in detail the challenges religious minorities deal with in their respective countries, and how the governments of Southeast Asia, a diverse region with mixed compositions of religious majority and minority, need to be able to promote, respect, and fulfil FORB not only for the interest of the minorities but also to protect the majority from having their belief used as a political commodity. This is especially important because ASEAN Economic Community, which will start this year, will bring enhanced interconnectedness and integration. The governments also need to be sensitive to the interconnectivity between FORB and other rights including freedom of expression, the rights of indigenous peoples, land rights, and the rights of the LGBT. During the conference, participants emphasized that freedom of speech and expression particularly needs to be protected and utilized to counter narrow-mindedness.

Towards the end of the three-day conference, the participants of the conference worked on a conference declaration that recognized that violations of FORB continue in Southeast Asia, perpetrated by state and non-state actors. Given the prospect of greater economic and social integration amongst ASEAN member states, it is crucial to defend and promote FORB as universal, inalienable and non-derogable human right as determined in the UDHR and to protect the marginalized. The full text of the declaration can be found here.