Mr. Peter Zoehrer, Secretary General of the Forum for Religious Freedom (FOREF) based in Austria, introduced the topic of the session. Dr. Antonio Stango, Secretary General of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Italy and a member of UPF’s Global Peace Council, gave a very informative summary of religious freedom in international law. The next five speakers each presented a “snapshot” of their engagement in the prevention of incitement to hatred and other human rights violations in their countries of origin:
Ms. Tseten Zochbauer, from Austria/Tibet, said that she met UPF in Vienna while on a hunger strike for more than 12 days for Tibet. Her country after 52 years is still fighting to keep the culture and language alive. After Tibet was occupied by China, she was exiled and sent to a foster family in Switzerland, attending high school here in Geneva. In 1989, she founded the Tibetan Community of Austria and in 1992 the SAVE TIBET Austrian Association. Since then has continued her efforts to support the people of Tibet and is currently the President of SOS Tibet in Austria. "There is a new generation of Tibetans coming up, and the Dalai Lama is stepping down from his political role. It’s the struggle of the Tibetan people, not just the Dalai Lama. He teaches about how to be democratic without violence. I represent Tibetan women in the exiled Tibetan Parliament, and my colleague in that Parliament, a Tibetan monk from Spain, is also here today. It is a race against time, since in Tibet there are three times as many Chinese as Tibetans. If nothing changes in the next five years, it will be lost. We have gained many famous friends. If we don’t succeed, how can others with even less support succeed? It would be the first time for a nation to get its sovereignty back by non-violent means. In Tibet, people are ready to die for this cause."
Ms. Naima Serroukh, from Switzerland/Morocco, is a lawyer who serves on the Integration Commission in Biel, Switzerland, and is president of the association "Pont de Communication." She is originally from Morocco and her husband is Tunisian; they have three children. She and her husband have initiated numerous projects related to integration and human rights. When she came to Switzerland she thought this would be the country of democracy and true freedom, but she found that there are sometimes chains of hatred and discrimination. “I’m talking about my personal experience. Do I need to compromise to be accepted, stop going to church or the mosque? Should I not have too many children? I can break these chains if I go back to the Qur'an, which has a universal message. In the first verse it says that we should learn from and go toward others and liberate ourselves from ignorance. When I make the effort to understand the person in front of me, I can develop. That’s universal, not just for Muslims."
Mr. Alex Ntung, from the UK/Democratic Republic of Congo, has been working in the area of peacebuilding and conflict resolution for the past 13 years. He is currently adviser to the Brussels-based International Peace and Development Initiative for Central Africa. Since independence, DR Congo has been going through civil war and has benefited from UN intervention. "In eastern Congo, peacebuilders have to be escorted by UN troops. There are five major antagonistic ethnic groups. Conflict is associated with identity and victimization. There is a lot of sexual violence used as a weapon of war. Peacebuilders seek to bring these five ethnic groups together to talk and find representative leaders to come up with an action plan. There is a lack of dialogue between the leaders. This is a sensitive issue and there is a lack of trust. These people usually never meet, but we were able to bring them together and come up with an action plan." Mr. Ntung showed a photo of him shaking hands with the head of a group responsible for killing many of his family members. Various projects were launched, such as a peace conference to combat racial hatred. The major outcome was that one rebel group became integrated into the national army after ten years of rebellion. They also had a meeting where prayers of forgiveness were offered among the different tribes. "Action speaks louder than words," he concluded, "so don’t hesitate to be an activist."
Ms. Manal Timraz, UK/Palestine, was born a Palestinian and worked for many years for the United Nations on projects relating to the welfare of women and children in Palestine. She grew up believing in the dream that one day there would be no more "us" and "them," but only a place where all Arabs and Jews can live peacefully side by side. She found a model of this dream in Coventry, in the United Kingdom, where people are living side by side as neighbors, regardless of their differences in race or faith. During the bombing of Gaza in December 2008, Manal lost 15 members of her family; 11 were children under the age of 12. "This was the greatest test for any human being to go through, let alone a peace activist." She asked herself, “am I really a peace activist or will I seek revenge like everyone else”? She refused to grieve and instead launched the "Millions Candles for Peace Campaign," with the candle as a symbol of peace. She flew with her children to the Holy Land, carrying a million candles donated from the people of Britain for the sake of humanity. “It was the little voice of Mohammad in my head, the youngest of my family members who were killed, which led me to start the campaign,” she explained. "Before he died, he asked me one favor over the phone, that is to come and take him to England to watch a football match, but it was impossible for him because this would require a UN resolution. I said to him that one day he would be able to come and watch any match he liked. His voice which had been filled with hope came to me. I felt like I stepped out of my own existence. It was the voice of the victims that motivated me."
Afsharpur Yazdan, Switzerland/Libya, works as a journalist with a Libyan NGO based in Switzerland since 2000: Human Rights Solidarity. He explained that he’d like to give a snapshot of how the critical situation that the world is watching in Libya began and descfribed the hopes of the people there. "The beginning of the uprising for democracy, which we hope won’t be derailed, came from the overdue need for changes in the Arab world. It was inspired by the uprising in neighboring countries. There was a call for a demonstration on the anniversary of the events on that date in 2006. Prior to that date, the Libyan regime always arrested those deemed dangerous. One hundred and fifty members of the central committee demanded the release of the detained activists. On February 16, demonstrations started in various places including in Benghazi. The regime’s security forces withdrew from the areas where the demonstrations took place. On February 17, munitions were shipped to begin killings, which outraged the police who then switched sides. In Benghazi, where the people held peaceful demonstrations, 257 people were killed, went missing, or were injured. Following this, there were huge demonstrations in Tripoli, and the security forces disappeared from the scene. It was peaceful on the side of the demonstrators until then. On the evening of February 27, Gaddafi’s son launched the state terror machine on the people. As a result, the demonstrators were forced to arm themselves. This led to resolution 1973 of the UN and now the NATO-led intervention. There is still much to tell, beyond what can be seen on the television, but please know that the Libyan people need your support!"
Three more detailed interventions followed the snapshots:
Professor Dr. Christian Brunner, University of Graz, Institute for Austrian, European and Comparative Public Law, Political Sciences and Public Administration, is a member of UPF’s Global Peace Council and President of FOREF in Europe. “We have a problem with religious freedom in Europe,” began Dr. Brunner, speaking on the “function and dysfunction of religion in secular states.” Religion is not purely a private matter; our European institutions, policy, and public space are being influenced by the convictions of citizens. "In my city of Graz (230,000 inhabitants) there are over 70 active religious communities, yet more than half of the population considers themselves without a religious confession. The European Court for Human Rights speaks about positive and negative religious freedom. The consequences of modern pluralist society tensions are far-reaching. Proposals to promote social cohesion include self restraint in use of language and articulation, and refraining from presenting Christianity as the leading culture, because this gives the green light to discrimination and denies the contribution of other cultures. The issues of crucifixes in schools could be solved if non-religious pupils could place their non-religious symbols on the wall beside the crucifix. Recently, the Archbishop of Vienna called for an acceptance of multiple religions. Proclamations be followed by concrete actions, such as the closing of anti-sect bureaus in Austria. We seek binding law-embedded values that are coherent for both the religious and non-religious people and an 'eternity clause' for our European constitution(s) as found in US, French, and German documents, stating that human dignity and fundamental human rights are inviolable and inalienable."
Mr. Dan Fefferman has been the executive director of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom since 1984. He came from Washington DC to speak about the problem of forced conversions in Japan in violation of article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (This theme had been decided prior to the earthquake and tsunami struck and was presented with respect and deep concern for Japan and Japanese citizens). "The phenomena of forced conversion had been briefly manifested in Europe and the USA in the 1970s and 1980s but comparatively rapidly recognized as illegal and largely eliminated. In Japan, more than 4300 religious believers have been confined in connection with their forced conversion through the actions of Christian ministers. These victims are mainly Unification Church members but also include Jehovah Witnesses and others. The police often refuse to help the victims. Missing persons reports are usually denied unless they are submitted by family members, but in these cases it is the family members who are the perpetrators. There is also racial discrimination, especially between Japanese and Koreans spouses. There have been no criminal prosecutions in the 16 to 20 cases in which the victims have tried to bring charges. Tactics include confining a person to prison-like apartments, forced renunciation of faith as a condition of release, and sometimes starvation and rape. Some victims were held in mental hospitals. This is a violation of article 18 of the UDHR and in some cases of articles 5 and 19 concerning torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Mr. Toru Goto was held for over 12 years. After the police refused to help her husband seek her release, Takako Fujita she committed suicide during confinement. We are appealing to theWorld Council of Churches and the US National Council of Churches to look into this as it is committed by Christian ministers. We are calling upon the UN and related institutions to put pressure on Japan, since it has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Dr. Aaron Rhodes, an international human rights activist, university lecturer, and essayist based in Hamburg, Germany, served as Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993 and 2007. He was also active in the Human Dimension of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "In the International Helsinki Federation, we had many debates about how much freedom of expression should be limited in order to prevent hate speech. The Russian government passed laws against incitement to hatred under pressure from the Council of Europe. However they were at times used to convict human rights activists, and in one outstanding case forced the Russian–Chechen Friendship Society out of existence. The Russian–Chechen Friendship Society was accused of being racist, because it dealt with racial problems, but it was a humanitarian organization. European laws against incitement to hatred originated as a consequence of the Holocaust. Europe is struggling with its multicultural reality. This is with us whether we like it or not." He referred to the work of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. "For civil society, the best prevention of hate crimes is respect for other people. Many non-democratic states have jumped on the anti-hate speech legislation bandwagon, because it gives the state the right to do things coercively. The reality is that crime has gone up in countries with anti-hate speech laws. We should not expect coercive laws by states to eliminate these kinds of problems."
In conclusion, Peter Zoehrer stated, "There can be no world peace without human rights. We should build a network and make our experiences count."