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The Special Envoy Mandate: The Litmus Test for EU Policy on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Tomorrow, the European Parliament sub-committee on human rights (DROI) will meet to discuss a draft resolution on EU Guidelines on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and the mandate of the Special Envoy on the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. It’s a significant milestone, representing the culmination of a year-long reflection within the European institutions on how the EU could more effectively promote and protect FoRB in its foreign policy and external action.

It’s also a document to watch: the recommendations that Parliament chooses to put forward in this resolution are likely to play a key role in shaping the future direction of EU policy on FoRB.

The resolution’s focus on FoRB

The resolution’s draft text has evidently been carefully crafted and it is pleasing to see such considered political analysis of how the EU could do FoRB policy better. Many long-held calls of civil society are included and extended.

The strong support given to the Special Envoy mandate is especially welcome: the draft resolution “considers the appointment of the Special Envoy as an important step forward” and “praises the Special Envoy for his continuous engagement and cooperation and complementarity of actions with the EU Special Representative for Human Rights.”

The Special Envoy on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU

The inauguration of the Special Envoy mandate in 2016 was somewhat unexpected. The European Parliament (EP) originally called in February 2016 for the EU to institute a permanent Special Representative on FoRB (a call repeated again in the present draft resolution). Heeding but watering down this request, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker announcedthree months later that Slovak politician and former European Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Youth, Ján Figeľ would be appointed to an entirely different position: Special Envoy, a role to be located within the European Commission and wearing the dual hat of ‘Special Advisor to the Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica’.

This decision was controversial: no-one quite knew what a Special Envoy was, and some said that appointing a distinct focal point on FoRB undermined the indivisibility of human rights. The choice of venue and timing was also inopportune: Juncker opted to announce his new FoRB-for-all Envoy at the Vatican, on the occasion of awarding a prestigious European integration prize to Pope Francis.

Positive impact of Ján Figeľ as Special Envoy

Initial controversy aside, Ján Figeľ has proven himself since 2016 to be unswervingly dedicated to the cause of FoRB. He has worked exceptionally hard to develop a largely undefined and arguably experimental position into a formal, functional role. With little official guidance on how his mandate is to operate, he focuses on travelling widely, meeting with national leaders, religious dignitaries, human rights defenders, academics and others, and speaking at international conferences and public events. His active presence on the international political stage and his persistence in raising FoRB in complex diplomatic circumstances has appreciably raised the visibility of EU engagement with this fundamental human right, and he has valuably affirmed and encouraged people worldwide working to protect and defend FoRB in challenging country contexts.

Figel’s impact over the past two-and-a-half-years is particularly remarkable considering that the Special Envoy post is chronically under-resourced, lacks stability (Figel was appointed on a one-year renewable term, which was formally renewed in 2017 and informally extended past May 2018) and continues to be questioned by EU officials. Personal charisma and initiative must be credited for a large portion of Figel’s success.

Sustainability of the Special Envoy mandate

It has long been held by CSW and others that to be fully effective, the Special Envoy role needs to be more holistically integrated into EU human rights policy structures. The EU vitally needs an overarching FoRB policy strategy which is long-term and connected to other human rights strategies and activities.

It is encouraging to see the EP draft resolution echoing these calls: it “deplores the fact that the Special Envoy’s mandate was not established and consolidated with sufficient human and financial resources” and “calls on the Council and the Commission to strengthen the Special Envoy’s institutional mandate and capacity, by earmarking funding and human resources adequate to the Envoy’s duties, developing a systemic institutionalisation of working networks established by the Special Envoy within all relevant EU institutions or establishing the position of the EU Special Representative for FoRB.”

Adding further calls, the draft resolution goes on to recommend extending the Special Envoy term of office to a multi-year term and setting up a “regular advisory working group of Member States’ FoRB institutions and European Parliament representatives together with experts, scholars, and representatives of civil society, including churches and other faith-based organisations”. Finally, it recommends closer cooperation with the UN. All of this is to be welcomed: it represents a pragmatic development of the Special Envoy’s unique role in promoting FoRB and will help to inform FoRB policymaking both within the EU and more globally.

The Special Envoy is setting the standard

The Special Envoy mandate is no longer an experimental test; Ján Figel’s actions and impact have demonstrated its core value to the EU and shown its importance in the world. By having a dedicated high-level position on FoRB, the EU is also setting a standard for its Member States to follow.

On January 1, 2018, the Danish government established the Office of the Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief, appointing Ambassador Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin as Denmark’s Special Representative for FoRB. In early July 2018, the UK government appointed Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon as UK Special Envoy on FoRB. In late July, Sweden’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement emphasising the level of attention paid to FoRB in the work of their Ambassador for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law.

It is encouraging to see momentum on FoRB building among the EU Member States and it is vitally important that the EU institutions continue to lead the way by supporting and strengthening the Special Envoy mandate, including, as the draft resolution asks, giving consideration to instituting a permanent EU Special Representative office.

Human rights, including FoRB, are increasingly under threat on local, national, regional and international levels. With other global political powers shifting positions and European elections looming in 2019, there is an urgent need for the EU to hold fast to its founding principles and reassert its commitment to human rights in both words and action.

This draft resolution offers a critical opportunity for the EU to reflect on, improve and enhance its work on FoRB, and it is to be hoped that its currently strong wording and calls remain intact throughout the parliamentary process. To quote a phrase oft-used by Ján Figeľ himself, the way in which the EU institutions receive and implement this draft resolution will be the “litmus test” for the future of FoRB, and thus for the EU’s human rights policy as a whole.

By Amy Shepherd, CSW’s EU Advocacy Manager

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