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Impunity threatens freedom of religion

01 December 2023

States must be held accountable for undermining the right to religious belief, says Chibuzor Tina


Christians at a peace rally in Hyderabad, in August, protest against violence in the state of Manipur, north-east India

Christians at a peace rally in Hyderabad, in August, protest against violence in the state of Manipur, north-east India

VIOLATIONS of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) take many forms: harassment, discrimination, threats, imprisonment, or even death on account of one’s religion or belief. The impunity that generally surrounds these violations undercuts the rule of law, denies justice to victims, and perpetuates an environment conducive to further violations. The issue is multifaceted and nuanced, with socio-political, legal, and psychological dimensions.

When state or non-state actors perpetrate FoRB violations without facing repercussions, this critically erodes public trust in the institutions responsible for upholding the rule of law. This erosion of trust threatens social cohesion and contributes to societal fragmentation.

Additionally, such impunity facilitates the normalisation of FoRB-related violations. When abuse of this right goes unpunished, it sends a tacit message to society that such actions are either permissible or at least tolerated, thereby further emboldening potential perpetrators.

An example of this can be seen in India, where the rise of a Hindu nationalist ideology embraced by the government has caused a surge in religious intolerance. Minority groups, especially Christians and Muslims, report the increased incidence of violence, intimidation, and discrimination in recent years, as cow vigilante attacks, anti-conversion laws, and attempts to reframe India’s history and identity from a secular to a predominantly Hindu narrative underscore this trend. Meanwhile, the state’s complicity in either turning a blind eye to, or actively endorsing, these activities results in a lack of accountability and justice.

Most alarmingly, this cycle of impunity can undermine the very foundations of democratic governance and pluralism, as a democratic society is predicated on the rule of law and the protection of human rights, including FoRB.

RULE of law, which is founded on the principle that all are equal before the law, is significantly undermined when impunity prevails. When exceptions are created to this foundational principle, the legal system itself becomes compromised, setting a dangerous precedent that could mean that other fundamental rights are similarly ignored or violated.

The absence of legal repercussions also acts as a disincentive to report violations. Victims or witnesses, convinced that such crimes will go unpunished, and often fearing further mistreatment or targeting, should they make an official complaint, are less likely to report them. This creates a chilling effect that results in underreporting and skews data, obscuring the true magnitude of the problem.

Lastly, the lack of legal consequences contributes to a paucity of legal precedent related to FoRB violations. This paucity of precedent can substantially hamper future efforts to ensure accountability, making it even more difficult to combat these violations effectively.

The psychological implications of impunity for FoRB violations are both immediate and long-term, affecting individuals and society at large. First and foremost, impunity denies victims the justice that they seek, and thereby exacerbates their trauma and makes them feel marginalised and delegitimised in their experiences.

Second, when FoRB violations become commonplace and go unpunished, a troubling societal desensitisation may occur. This collective numbness regarding the gravity of these human-rights violations can lead to a passive acceptance, effectively lowering the societal bar for what is deemed unacceptable behaviour.

Finally, the enduring nature of impunity can contribute to shifts in cultural norms and values. Over time, certain religious or belief groups may increasingly be viewed as “legitimate targets” for discrimination or violence, and this entrenches prejudices more deeply in the social fabric and perpetuates cycles of violation and injustice.

This has been witnessed in Nigeria, particularly in the country’s northern states and central, or Middle Belt, region, where systematic marginalisation and episodic violence, dating from the colonial-era decision to place indigenous non-Muslim ethnic groups under the authority of the Sokoto Sultanate, created an enabling environment for the regular emergence of violent non-state actors such as Boko Haram and the Fulani militia, who terrorise communities based on their religious beliefs.

The inability or unwillingness of successive Nigerian governments to hold perpetrators accountable has exacerbated the crisis. It has led to escalating cycles of violence, and the gradual expansion of this terrorism to previously unaffected areas.

Addressing these challenges is not only about ensuring justice for individual victims or communities, but also about preserving the principles of justice, equity, and human rights that are the foundation of democratic societies.

IN SOME cases, a state can enjoy a significant degree of impunity on the international stage, as is so for China.

The Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on religious and belief groups has intensified over the past decade. The government’s policy towards religious minorities, whether Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Tibetan Buddhists, or Christians in unregistered churches, is increasingly restrictive and punitive. The situation is particularly alarming in the XUAR, where forced labour, mass surveillance, and indoctrination camps are alleged. While China vehemently denies any wrongdoing, its systematic repression, coupled with an international hesitancy to confront Beijing, has engendered gross impunity.

Through its advocacy, research, and on-the-ground partnerships, CSW seeks to play a crucial part in highlighting these issues to the UK Parliament and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) desks and relevant departments. We are documenting abuses and raising these issues with the UK and US governments, and regional and international institutions, besides supporting local communities in the effort to bring about systemic change.

IT IS increasingly recognised that impunity can be eroded only by accountability, justice, and the unbiased enforcement of the rule of law. Without this, the repetition of violations, some of which often amount to atrocity crimes, is guaranteed.

There are various means of assuring accountability for perpetrators and justice for survivors, which include establishing independent and impartial investigations and prosecutions, providing effective remedies and reparations to victims, ensuring witness protection and cooperation, reforming laws and institutions, and promoting human-rights education and awareness.

The UK, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and through its sanctions regime and other tools of diplomacy, has a crucial part to play in tackling FoRB-related impunity. Next Tuesday, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for FoRB is hosting an event that will enable parliamentarians to learn more about this issue and how policymakers can play their part in encouraging the UK government to act.

It is not enough simply to raise awareness of atrocities, of crimes against humanity; we must go further in advocating FoRB and leveraging every tool at our disposal to ensure human rights are respected. This is why events such as these are important.

Chibuzor Tina is UK liaison officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

This is an edited version of a blog that was first published at forbinfull.org

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