Excerpt from an address by Dr. Jan Figel, former European Commission Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion outside the EU, presented by video at an information meeting on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in Japan at the 42nd Session of the UPR Working Group at the UN Office in Geneva (Palais des Nations), Switzerland 31st January 2023.
“I’m sending my heartfelt greetings to Geneva from the third International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington DC. It is a civil society led global gathering on important, crucial and fundamental human rights in the current context on FoRB, Freedom of Religion or Belief.
FoRB is an issue of life and death. It is true in the least developed countries of Africa and Asia or in the Middle East and the North African region. It is true in totalitarian and autocratic countries. But regrettably, it is true also in developed democracies.
I’m sure this event in Geneva is exactly a very timely contribution in the effort to analyse the situation and some worrying trends in Japan, and to contribute to the prevalence of peaceful coexistence and justice for all.
On July 8th, 2022, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated. His murderer was Tetsuya Yamagami. His reason for killing was that Abe had participated through a video and by sending a message to events organized by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF).
UPF is an NGO connected with the Unification Church, which is now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. UPF holds a general consultative status at the United Nations.
Faith and reason, religion and science, are two motors moving our societies and civilizations forward. The Pew Research Center in Washington, DC says that 84% of the global population claim a religious affiliation. And the number is growing. We speak here about an overwhelming majority of the world population.
The United Nations is here in service to all people, people with their diverse identities and justified rights. Secondly, peace is a fruit of justice, justice for all. More than one understanding of justice is based on the respect of fundamental human rights.
Religious freedom is defined as freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights is about a very central right, important for believers and non-believers, for people from A-Z, which means for atheists to Zoroastrians.
Japan has ratified the UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1979 and is bound by its content.
FoRB is a litmus test of all other human rights. This is the reason for the importance and existence of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on FoRB. I was the first ever European Union FoRB Special Envoy.
After my nomination in May 2016, many similar envoys, ambassadors and governmental plenipotentiaries have been established in a dozen countries, like Hungary, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Denmark, Lithuania, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy.
Thirdly, FoRB is under serious pressure. 79% of the global population live in countries with high, or very high, obstacles to religious freedom. They are produced by social hostilities, violent extremism or terrorism. Or they represent government restrictions.
The intensity and character of these pressures range from intolerance, through discrimination to persecution and even, regrettably, to genocide. We need an urgent global action. We need a ‘FoRB climate change’. […]
Yamagami hated the Unification Church because 20 years earlier his mother went bankrupt, and he attributed her bankruptcy to the excessive donations she had made to the church, of which she is still a member. Almost overnight, the opponents of the church launched a massive attack against the religious movement. They twisted arguments, persuaded most media and Japanese public opinion that the Unification Church was responsible for the crime. All the intense agitation led to two legal initiatives, the first aimed at depriving the Unification Church or Family Federation of its status as a religious corporation. The second at amending the existing consumer protection laws to protect those who donate excessively to religious organizations.
Church members are subject of attacks and discrimination. By the way, the government of Japan is a friend of IRBA, the International Religious Freedom and Belief Alliance together with Canada and South Korea.
FoRB is a very central human right. All human rights stem from human dignity, which is their foundational principle. In 2018, I helped to initiate and draft the so-called Punta del Este Declaration on human dignity for everyone, everywhere. It is supported by both religious and secular humanists and serves as an instrument of recommitment to the Universal Human Rights. In human dignity for all, dignity is a departure point, objective of measures and criterion of measures. Anybody may join the growing list of its signatories at www.dignityforeveryone.org.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m convinced that this initiative and message can deepen the respect for dignity and freedom of religion or belief for all, in Japan and elsewhere. Thank you for your attention and greetings again from Washington, DC to Geneva.”
Featured image above: Jan Figel speaking via video 31st Jan. 2023 in front of powerpoint about religious persecution in Japan. Photo: Screenshot from live transmission.
Dr. Jan Figel was the European Commission Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion outside the EU 2016-2019. He was former EU Commissioner and Deputy Prime Minister of Slovakia. Prior responsibilities: He successfully acted as chief negotiator for accession of Slovakia to the EU as a State Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the annus mirabilis 1989, he engaged in founding the Christian Democratic Movement in Slovakia. From 2009 to 2016, he was the party president. He served for four years as vice-president of the Slovak parliament. He was the first ever Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the EU.
During his tenure, he successfully negotiated the release from a death sentence and imprisonment of Asia Bibi, a young Christian woman in Pakistan, who had already been unjustly imprisoned for seven years for blasphemy. This successful pioneering work was followed by several new countries that have established similar diplomatic positions since 2016. Dr. Figel has become strongly involved in FoRB advocacy, promotion of interreligious dialogue, religious literacy, and religious social responsibility.
He was active in the release of four prisoners in Cuba, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan.
Under his responsibility, The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) was founded in 2008 as an EU body. Jan Figel supports and promotes a culture of human dignity. As he often underlines, there is a nexus between human dignity and FoRB. With a group of experts and scholars, he initiated the Punta del Este Declaration on human dignity for everyone, everywhere, with a growing number of signatories. Currently he is a member of the International Council of Experts of the International Religious Freedom and Belief Alliance and also a member of the IRF Secretariat Global Leadership Council.