Religious Freedom at the United Nations

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Some UN member countries claim a right to discriminate towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people based on religious objections. This type of discrimination includes everything from so called ‘conversion’ therapy, refusal to teach anti-bullying programs in schools, to the death penalty and corporal punishment for perceived or actual differences in sexual orientation or gender identity. While the situations may differ, one thing remains the same: Religion is being used as an excuse to discriminate against and harm others.

In the UN system ‘religious freedom’ is misused by anti-LGBT lobby groups such as C-Fam, The Alliance for the Defence of Freedom, and World Congress of Families as a way of attacking the inherent dignity of LGBTI people. Groups such as these attempt to argue that legal protection and equality based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression or sex characteristics either at the UN and in domestic frameworks detract from their right to religious freedom. Proponents of this version of ‘religious freedom’ argue that their religious belief gives them authority to exert control over the lives of others who do not share their beliefs. Freedom of religion has been used as an excuse to criminalize consensual same-sex practices, publically whip men suspected of being gay, police the types of clothes people can wear, the public bathroom they can use, and restrict access to accurate and safe health service provision. This anathema to LGBTI people is ultimately designed to control the bodies of LGBTI people while using religion as a moral smokescreen for violence and discrimination.

Not all religious representatives agree that their beliefs offer cover for violence and discrimination against LGBTI people. A number of recent events at UN headquarters in New York offer a different perspective.

In late October, an event titled the Ethics of Reciprocity brought together LGBTI religious leaders from around the world, UN Member States, and representatives from the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to explore how stakeholders could work together to end religiously motivated abuses, violence, beatings, and murders of LGBTI people. During the discussion, religious leaders spoke to the misapplication of religion in terms of anti-LGBTI rhetoric arguing that religion does not condone violence against any individuals including based on their sexual orientation and gender identity or gender expression. The event centred on the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you want them to do to you,” and reinforced the notion that LGBTI discrimination is counterintuitive to this religious ideal.

This Ethics of Reciprocity came in heels of another dialogue held by the Holy See which focused on addressing violence and world conflict. Held in mid October also at UN Headquarters, the discussion, titled “The Other is a Good for Me,” emphasized the inherent good in all people and the need to approach each other with respect and the sincere willingness to understand each other. Even though the Holy See has a reputation as an anti-LGBTI voice at UN headquarters in particular, there have been noted instances at the UN where they have stood against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. One example is found in their 2009 statement to the General Assembly where they stated that, “the Holy See continues to oppose all grave violations of human rights against homosexual persons…[and] also opposes all forms of violence and unjust discrimination,” and called on states and individuals to, “respect the rights of all persons and to work to promote their inherent dignity and worth.”

The Holy See has not been the only religious body to condemn violence against LGBTI individuals. In 2016, the Iraqi Shiite Cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, publicly addressed violence against LGBTI individuals and called for a humanitarian stance towards the LGBTI community. With powerful religious entities such as the Holy See and individuals such as Muqtada al-Sadr opposing violence and discrimination against LGBTI individuals, how can one explain the continued use of religious freedom as a means to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity?

More often than not, such arguments do not genuinely advocate for freedom of religion or belief. Rather, they co-opt the language of both human rights and religious doctrines and use notions of “cultural values” and “morality” as a veil to incite hate and justify violence. In doing so, they reduce religion to only a couple of values, deliberately choosing to ignore other religious ideals like pluralism and tolerance. When these narratives are then propagated within the UN, they curtail LGBTI-inclusive language and hinder the progress of both legal and normative frameworks.

Maintaining the visibility of LGBTI issues at the international level plays a crucial role in upholding the rights of LGBTI people at the domestic level. Hence, arguments of religious freedom at the expense of visibility, protection and legal equality of LGBTI people not only take away from progressing standards at the UN, they also trickle down to the national-level where acts of violence and discrimination can then be committed against LGBTI people with relative (if not complete) international impunity. This seems evident in certain countries, where being an international advocate for “traditional values” has been more or less consistent with persecuting individuals at home for not conforming to officially approved norms.

Acts of fundamentalist governments that aim at propagating discrimination in the name of religion are absolutely contrary to human rights standards. But religious fundamentalism and rhetoric is not religion itself, and secularism cannot be interpreted as the absence of religion. Rather, secularism is the structural, legal and broader societal recognition of diversity in thought, practice, belief and identity. Moving forward, it is important for both States and advocates to embrace a more humane understanding and interpretation of religion, one which is conversant and complimentary with human rights.