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‘Dignity is the foundational principle of all human rights’ – an interview with Ján Figel

Ján Figel is the EU’s Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion outside the EU, appointed by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker in 2016. New Europe asked him about the progress made, and what lies ahead for freedom of religion and belief:

New Europe: You have served as the EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU for now 3 years. What are your most meaningful achievements?

Ján Figel: My exploratory and difficult mission accumulated much political trust outside and inside of the EU and expectations for the future. Several EU Member States created similar positions (Germany, UK, Denmark, Hungary, and Lithuania). I established very constructive cooperation with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Ahmed Shaheed, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, the OSCE/ODIHR, the Holy See diplomacy, with NGOs, media and civil society in the FoRB area. After two introductory years of intensive work, I succeeded in January through the Grzyb Report to get the European Parliament’s support for continuity and adequate conditions of this mandate for the future, after the EU elections.

Religious freedom and religious social responsibility are much more on the agenda now than at any time before. We decided to get this content repeatedly integrated into the European Development Days. After 25 years of existence, the Lorenzo Natali Media Prize for journalists was enriched by FoRB Prizes (professional and amateur prize). For the first time, there are projects supported by the EU in the area of intercultural and interreligious dialogue to the tune of 5million Euro. I supported the founding of and the successful work of the European Academy of Religion operating since December 2016 in Bologna. Hundreds of scholars from Europe and beyond are working and meeting annually engaging in scientific cooperation around religion studies.

Especially rewarding were my experiences with the release of some persecuted persons, like Czech activist Petr Jašek and his two collaborators in Sudan, human rights defender Ibrahim Mudawi and five other activists in Sudan, or Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death in Pakistan. Human life saved from the hands of injustice or from fanatics is a great encouragement!

Your title makes clear that your mandate concerns non-EU States. Do you think it would be appropriate to include in it the promotion of freedom of religion or belief inside the EU? Why?

I visited many countries and have participated in numerous conferences. The most important missions include Iraq, Sudan, Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Israel, Palestine, UAE, and Bahrain. Everywhere I somehow had to respond to questions, doubts or concerns about religious freedom in the EU. I defended our values, principles and commitments which are evident. I am frequently speaking inside the EU on FoRB – in Brussels, Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, London, Rome, etc, and issues are frequently raised regarding our internal situations.

We need to show consistency in our intra-EU policies if we want to achieve higher credibility outside. Here like in all human rights agenda, double standards in policy is counterproductive. But the internal promotion of FoRB is obviously different, having in mind not only constitutional instruments in all EU Member States but also our Treaty with the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Luxembourg European Court of Justice and also the European Convention on Human Rights and the Strasbourg ECHR.

I am sure we do not need nowadays new institutions, but we need a new institutionally-based approach combining external and internal dimensions of FoRB promotion. We need an innovative approach. For example, the European Parliament Intergroup can deal with FoRB situations in both dimensions – outside and inside the EU. Some other European Parliament committees and EU bodies can address FoRB in the EU as well. For example, Treaty Art. 17 Dialogue with churches, religious communities and humanists and non-confessional organisations could be used to reflect on FoRB issues.

You are known to work in an all-inclusive manner with civil society, NGOs and faith-based organization in order to fulfil your mandate. Do you think this to be a key to success and why?

“United in diversity” in this area is a must. There are many opponents of FoRB agenda; there is usual business-oriented dominance at EU meetings and dialogues on security, migration, monetary or economic concerns. Therefore, we need to unite people and groups who care about freedom of thought, conscience, faith or belief. There is open space for secular and religious humanists to work together. I am sure this is the right approach to success. FoRB is our common concern and common good, it is actually a civilizational issue.

And why? I tested such an inclusive approach around human dignity. Dignity is the foundational principle of all human rights, very much resonating with the right for FoRB. And recently we got a great consensual message of diverse scholars and international experts for FoRB and human rights: The Declaration on Human Dignity for Everyone Everywhere. I helped to initiate this Declaration. This is a very timely contribution towards the interdependence, indivisibility and importance of universal human rights.

What do you think should be done to improve the efficiency of the EU as regards Freedom of Religion or Belief, either outside or inside of the EU?

My role since May 2016 was a pioneering one. I served as Special Adviser to Commissioner Neven Mimica responsible for development cooperation policy. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Commissioners Mimica and Hahn, DG DEVCO, NEAR, JUST, EEAS and many other parts of EU institutions, like European Parliament President Tajani, Vice-President McGuiness, the European Parliament AFET Committee, the Intergroup on FoRB and RT, Council COHOM were all supportive. A Special Envoy holding an external contract is not fully integrated into the system. But trust and results accumulated during those three years can be now used for a stronger and more efficient approach during the next period.

The first input is better awareness and understanding what FoRB protection means for human rights in general, for good governance and sustainable development. FoRB for all is a condition of security, economic strength and social cohesion. The next step should be the institutionalization of FoRB in the European Union, as we see it in a growing number of EU member states or the USA and Norway. This decision can be made by the future European Commission supported by the newly elected European Parliament. I am sure, conditions are maturing and the momentum is there.

FoRB for all is fully in the spirit of Robert Schuman’s legacy. A permanent EU FoRB Special Envoy with a professional team, with a stronger multiannual mandate correctly integrated within the Commission and the EEAS, working closely with the Council, the Member States and the European Parliament should be established to pursue a permanent and efficient promotion of FoRB for all.

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