An idea whose time has come: The Harper government’s promised Office of Religious Freedom could offer expertise on the role of religion in foreign policy

John Siebert News

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 33 Issue 3

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is in charge of implementing the government’s commitment to open an Office of Religious Freedom (ORF) in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). What the ORF will actually do will not be known until it is opened and an Ambassador named, but the work of the ORF holds the promise to advance peace and human security in regions where religion is a significant factor in armed conflict and armed violence.

The Conservative platform pledge
The 2011 federal Conservative election platform contained an entry entitled “Defending Religious Freedom” (p. 40). It promised to “create a special Office of Religious Freedom in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to monitor religious freedom around the world, to promote religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy, and to advance policies and programs that support religious freedom.” The refugee resettlement process and programming supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) are among the tools to be used by various federal departments and agencies to advance these goals.

By the summer of 2012 there was still no firm launch date for the ORF (Duggal 2012). Baird has stated that he is more interested in getting the office successfully launched on the right path than opening it quickly. That makes sense. Religious freedom is a sensitive topic. Establishing the ORF requires finesse.  Introducing a new “key objective” for Canadian foreign policy with a modest annual budget of $5-million and a staff of five within a potentially skeptical foreign affairs establishment will require intensified diplomacy and extensive contact with civil society actors in Canada and abroad.

An idea whose time has come
Providing a focus for expertise within DFAIT on the role of religion in foreign policy is a welcome development. Previous attempts have been made.

In 1998, Lloyd Axworthy announced that addressing religious intolerance would be a thematic priority for DFAIT. In 2004, the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Development adopted a resolution that urged the Government of Canada “to make the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of religion and belief a central element of its efforts to defend human rights internationally.” (Cameron 2011)

In the late 1990s Canadian religious leaders were in direct conversation with DFAIT to establish such an office, but the process did not bear fruit. These efforts drew in part on the “human dimension” activities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the regional multilateral forum embracing Europe, Central Asia, the United States, and Canada (Vancouver to Vladivostok), with its roots in the 1970s Helsinki Accords. Problems related to religious freedom and minority rights, particularly in the newly independent states created by the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, resulted in devastating violent conflicts, often involving ethnic and religious minorities.

The work of the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities was initiated in 1992 to respond to the link between human rights observance and human security (Volleback 2012). Post-Cold War, the OSCE became a laboratory for innovative and often successful non-military interventions to address the underlying causes of conflict.

Religion and violent conflict
The post-9/11 “war on terror” put a spotlight on religion as a driver of violent conflict and raised many questions. Was it a holy war? A clash of Christian and Islamic civilizations? A contest for access to resources, particularly oil? Does it represent modernity confronting frustrated pre-modern societies, or democracies versus authoritarian regimes? Or is this “war” a complex mix of all the above?

There is no avoiding the fact that, as in the case of al-Qaeda, religion can be a factor in starting or intensifying violent conflict. The resort to violence by some of the faithful certainly is not restricted to Islam. Violence-advocating groups associate themselves with most major religions. Even in a radical case such as al-Qaeda, however, religion is seldom the only conflict driver. Other factors give rise to grievances and disputes leading to violence, such as economic and social inequity, restrictions on real political participation in decisions, and direct state persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. In some countries, such as Syria under al-Assad, religious or ethnic minorities govern majorities.

Religion also can be a countervailing force to violence, providing the social glue that binds societies when they are buffeted by momentous change, inspiring mutual support to weather violence, and helping guide a society safely to the shores of sustainable peace.

Where religion is a significant factor in the identity of one or more parties to a violent conflict, religious leaders and adherents can be mobilized to facilitate peace. Taking on a minimal role, religious leadership can publicly refuse to allow religion to be used to demonize others in a conflict. A more substantial role for religion will harness its authority as a trusted institution to reduce tensions, resolve conflicts, and aid in the reconciliation processes required for peace to endure.

The potential exists for the new ORF at DFAIT to be an effective tool for mobilizing religion for peace and against violence.1

The ORF and human rights
Minister Baird has primarily spoken about religious freedom using the language of international human rights commitments.2 He has indicated that he is committed to a balanced human rights approach in establishing the ORF. At a Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington, DC in May he said, “Like the United States, we realize that we cannot be selective in which basic human rights we defend, nor can we be arbitrary in whose rights we protect” (Baird 2012). A few months earlier at the OSCE Ministerial meeting in Lithuania (Baird 2011b), he indicated that he would not sacrifice some human rights for the sake of religious freedom. As he did in his UN speech last fall, he spoke about sexual orientation: “We also need to take steps to ensure that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not allowed under law. It is unacceptable that people in the OSCE region can still be attacked and imprisoned simply for their sexual orientation” (Baird 2011b).

In an address at an October 2011 ORF stakeholders consultation, Baird (2011a) went further to link respect for religious freedom in a society to the broader freedoms present in stable democratic societies. Where religious freedom is present, freedoms of all kinds are present. Respect for religions plays a foundational role in establishing and maintaining secular liberal democracy.3

There are several dilemmas inherent in advocating for the implementation of human rights commitments related to religious freedom. One is that skeptical Canadian diplomats may need to be coaxed onboard the good ship Religious Freedom. Criticising the implementation of the U.S. International Religious Freedom legislation, first Director of the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom Thomas Farr writes that most State Department officials approach religion with ambivalence, fear, and a belief that religion really is irrelevant in modern society. Religion is perceived as emotive and irrational, or too complicated and sensitive. As a result, consideration of religion in high foreign policy is marginalized as a humanitarian or cultural issue (Farr 2008, p. 113).4 Whether these criticisms also hold true for Canadian diplomats remains to be seen.

A more important concern is whether the prescribed interpretation of religious freedom and human rights observance will result in diplomatic activity that is limited to documenting and denouncing violations and violators of religious freedom. Unfortunately, naming and shaming alone rarely provide lasting results. While they might produce meaningful change for those individuals who are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, broader reforms are ignored.

Coercion can change behaviour in the short term, but sustained change must come from within. Carrots (economic and aid) and sticks (withdrawal of assistance and sanctions) may influence some regimes, but cannot create the positive internal momentum for lasting change and reform. As Farr (2008, p. 123) concludes in his analysis of U.S. policy in the Middle East, “extremism and terrorism [in Islam] can in the final analysis only be defeated by Muslims speaking from the heart of Islam.”

Promoting genuine religious freedom is a much broader endeavour. Religious people and organizations must have the freedom to practise their religion or beliefs and actively engage in public life to influence public policy “within the bounds of liberal norms” (Farr 2008, p. 116). A broad view of religious freedom includes the right of religious communities to participate in society within the general framework of the rule of law.

Clearly, the Conservative election platform commitment points in this direction: to advance “policies and programs that support religious freedom” (Conservative Party of Canada 2011). Active peacebuilding would incorporate a broad approach to religious freedom in situations where religion and religious actors are drivers of violent conflict: addressing grievances from religious communities before violence erupts, intervening with diplomatic measures and support to civil society and religious organizations in the midst of violence, and supporting post-conflict initiatives by religious and civil society groups to ensure that violence doesn’t erupt again.
The challenges
Canada’s ability to be a game changer for religious freedom in another state clearly cannot depend on military displays of strength, with or without allies, or trade liberalization initiatives. The primary activities of the ORF offer DFAIT the possibility of reengaging in its traditional persuasion skills in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

To establish and embed religious freedom as a key objective in Canadian foreign policy, both the underlying policy and its implementation must be balanced and non-partisan. The ORF initiative has been met with criticisms.5 Dr. Nathan Funk,6 a professor in the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Waterloo, reminds us that well intentioned efforts can have unintended consequences: “If you’re going to promote religious human rights as a matter of foreign policy, you have to do it in an objective, even-handed, inclusive, reflective, dialogue-based way—otherwise there’s lots of potential to do as much harm as good.” Farr (2008, p. 118) advises to avoid capture by special interests. To succeed over time, the ORF must sensitively address complicated circumstances with a balanced approach to religious freedom, reconciling human rights promotion with other Canadian foreign policy goals.

No matter how it approaches its task, the ORF will face inherent limitations as an instrument of government in a field dominated by nongovernmental actors.7 Faith-based organizations are the largest, best connected, and best equipped civil society organizations  in the world. They are present almost everywhere. They connect to each other across borders. They embody and speak for the hopes and hurts of those who, systematically denied the benefits of religious freedom, may turn to violence to press their point. For the ORF to effectively advance peace by advancing religious freedom, it must constructively engage with a broad cross-section of civil society, faith-based and secular.

Minister Baird and the Conservative government have indicated that they aspire to fulfill a broad mandate for Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom—not just enumerating and hectoring delinquents, but actually promoting substantive freedom of religion and belief. Success in this endeavour will require:

  • Convincing a potentially skeptical foreign affairs establishment of the need and relevance of religious freedom as a key objective of Canadian foreign policy;
  • Grounding the ORF’s work in national, regional, and international human rights commitments to freedom of religion and belief;
  • Commitment to a balanced and non-partisan approach to advancing religious freedom;
  • Continually sorting out the contradictions between advancing religious freedom and other human rights and foreign policy priorities;
  • Engaging in intensive diplomacy to advance religious freedom;
  • Resources for programming to nurture religious freedom; and
  • Regular and meaningful consultation and engagement with civil society in Canada and abroad.

Promoting religious freedom in this way will provide Canada with opportunities to advance international peace and security where religion is a driver in violent conflicts.

1. For further discussion on the role of religion in violent conflict see Siebert 2007.
2. Freedom of religion is provided for in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), articles 18 and 27 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950), article 12 of the American Convention on Human Rights (1969), and article 8 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981). See also Principle VII, sec. 1 and 3 in the Final Act of Helsinki (1975) and the reaffirmation of the freedom of religion in the documents of the OSCE Follow-up Meetings (“Human Contacts”). “The guarantee of the freedom of religion and belief is also affirmed by various conventions addressing discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, language or religion and those on minority protection. See, e.g., the U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief of November 25, 1981; the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities of December 18, 1992; the European Council Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities of November 10, 1994” (OSCE 1996, p. 7).
3. Political Scientist Clifford Orwin (2012) makes this point in more detail.
4. Farr’s 2008 article in Foreign Affairs is worth reading for many reasons, including the eerily prophetic paragraphs describing the dilemma the United States would face should Egypt ever have free and fair democratic elections. Farr accurately predicted the election of a President and Parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (p.122), a reality now facing the Obama Administration in 2012.
5. See Tapper 2012.
6. Personal correspondence, 2012.
7. Countries where there is a fusion between state and faith, such as Iran, are exceptions that require a different approach. See Siebert 2007 for further discussion of this point.

Baird, John. 2011a, Address by Minister Baird at Office of Religious Freedom Stakeholder Consultations. DFAIT, October 3.
———. 2011b. Address by Minister Baird to Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Ministerial Council, DFAIT, December 6.
———. 2012. Address by Minister Baird at Religious Liberty Dinner. DFAIT, May 24.
Cameron, Geoffrey. 2011. Next Steps on Canada’s religious freedom office. Embassy Magazine, June 1, 2011.
Conservative Party of Canada. 2011. Here for Canada: Stephen Harper’s Low-Tax Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth.
Duggal, Sneh. 2012. Religious freedom office in final set-up stages: Government. Embassy Magazine, August 8, 2012
Farr, Thomas F. 2008. Diplomacy in an age of faith: Religious freedom and national security.  Foreign Affairs, 87:2, pp. 110-124.
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. 1996. Human Dimension Seminar on Constitutional, Legal and Administrative Aspects of the Freedom of Religion Consolidated Summary. ODIHR, April 16-19.
Orwin, Clifford. 2012. Religious-freedom office is a blessing, non-believers, Globe and Mail, January 9.
Siebert, John. 2007. Religion and violent conflict: A practitioner’s functional approach. The Ploughshares Monitor, 28:2.
Tapper, Josh. 2012. Does the Office of Religious Freedom have any teeth? Toronto Star, January 20.
Volleback, Knut. 2012. HCNM at 20: The Challenges of Change—Continued. Address by OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, “HCNM 20 Years On” Conference, July 6.

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