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The Istanbul Process

Executive Director of the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission, Marghoob Butt, says the international community must unite 
to defeat anti-religious hatred
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VIOLENCE AND BIGOTRY against religious minorities has been at the centre of some of history’s darkest chapters. Anti-religious hatred has appeared whenever political and economic instability has permitted populist politicians and ideologues to demonise the ‘other.’

Today, we find ourselves in yet another epoch of history in which mass anti-religious discrimination and hatred has reappeared on the world stage. From the plight of Christian and Yazidi minorities in Syria and Iraq, to the anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, the wanton suffering of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma and the increasingly brazen Islamophobic statements made by some Western leaders; hatred towards religious minorities seems, once again, to have gone mainstream.

The question is this: are we, the international community, doing enough to tackle such a pernicious and divisive menace that threatens to tear the fabric of present day multicultural societies?

It is true that in many cases the roots of such problems lie within intractable geo-political challenges. But correcting increasingly prevalent and dehumanising misconceptions 
about religious communities nonetheless remains a vital part of the solution. Just as the latter half of the twentieth century saw a concerted effort on the part of governments and civil society to address the problem of racism, so too must similar efforts be made today to address the dangerously precipitous rise in hatred against persons based on their religion and belief – a form of discrimination that is every bit as pernicious. It indeed is the contemporary manifestation of racism.

This is why the Istanbul Process is so important. Supported by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the European Union and the United States, the Process is a collaborative effort to create a global policy framework to tackle the problem of incitement to religious hatred and discrimination, and to combat hate speech by implementing UN Human Rights Resolution 16/18.

The resolution is hailed as a poster child of EU, US and OIC cooperation on this extremely sensitive subject, and is considered by many as a milestone achievement in the UN’s 70-year history of combating discrimination based on religion. The hallmark of this resolution is its consensual approach that suggests an action-oriented policy framework to combat “intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief.” Firmly grounded in international human rights law, this policy framework suggests a number of actions to be taken at local, national and international levels by all stakeholders.

The Istanbul Process refers to a unique follow-up mechanism that discusses the implementation of the Resolution 16/18 through a series of international meetings, and was named after its inaugural meeting held in July 2011, which was attended by the OIC Secretary General, the US Secretary of States, the EU High Representative and leaders of other key Western and OIC countries. While recording progress on many levels, these meetings have also seen disagreements on finer aspects of some key issues, particularly over defining what constitutes ‘incitement to violence’ and whether it infringes free speech values in Western countries.

Notwithstanding these differing views, the current global state of affairs calls for strict implementation of the resolution with actions taking off on agreed points. Accordingly, the last meeting of the Istanbul Process held in Jeddah in June 2015 stressed the urgency of full and effective implementation of this resolution.

Furthermore, the meeting noted that implementation of resolution 16/18 does not necessarily mean taking res-trictive policy measures that limit a nation’s freedom of speech laws, and that each nation should implement the resolution within the limits of their own national legal requirements. The importance of compiling existing good practices on laws dealing with combating incitement to hatred and extension of their protection to all affected individuals and groups was also emphasised.

Moreover, a significant portion of the latest Istanbul Process meeting in Jeddah focused on positive action and engagement, like introducing human rights education from an early stage, training government officials to address the root causes of religious discrimination, and promoting interfaith and intercultural dialogue. The meeting also benefitted from the active engagement of international civil society and NGOs. Engaging civil society voices is an encouraging step for the Process, and one that’s crucial to shifting increasingly prevalent social misconceptions and prejudices, whilst also democratising the organic nature of law-making.

There is, of course, another pressing reason for why the 
goals of the resolution must be pursued with increased vigour and determination – the peace and security imperative.

Take, for instance, Daesh/ISIS’ self-professed goal of evoking a strong Islamophobic response in the West as a means of eliminating the ‘grey zone,’ (the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims which, according to extremist thinkers, must be eradicated in order for their much desired ‘clash of civilisations’ to be made possible). Fuelling anti-religious hatred and violence against Muslims in the West is a crucial plank in the global strategy of extremist groups like Daesh/ISIS, who feed off the resulting marginalisation and resentment it creates.

This is why the Istanbul Process also means major global regional blocs like the OIC, the EU and the US, working more closely to tackle extremist propaganda and helping to frame powerful counter-narratives against the twisted logic and misinformation that so often characterises anti-religious bigotry.

It is yet another stark reminder for why all parties must redouble efforts at all levels, including the Human Rights Council, General Assembly and the upcoming 2016 Istanbul Process meeting to strengthen the implementation of this consensus policy framework, i.e. resolution 16/18. Though there has not always been 
unanimous agreement between parties, the heartening fact is that there has always been compromise, and a common acceptance and respect for the need for such an effort. None of this is to say there is not a need to address every aspect of the Action Plan in a uniform and universal approach; something that entails confronting sensitive issues like the avoidance of double standards in the implementation of the resolution. But implementing resolution 16/18 to an extent acceptable to all parties, even if incomplete in scope, must be made a priority, not merely because it is helpful in tackling anti-religious bigotry, but because it is absolutely necessary in such efforts.

Indeed, at a time when demagogues and extremists would have us turn on one another, what better response than to have countries from all regions of the world unite and deliver a clear message saying that the ‘clash of civilisations’ is not between religious groups and communities, but between those who stand for hate and divisiveness on the one hand, and those that stand for mutual respect and peaceful co-existence on the other.

The Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission is an expert body established by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Founded in 1969, the OIC is the second largest inter-governmental organisation in the world with 57 sovereign member states from across the Islamic world, and represents causes of importance to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

The OIC is “the collective voice of the Muslim world” and works to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony.”

In 2007, US President George W. Bush established an official US envoy to the OIC to 
“listen to and learn from representatives from Muslim states, and will share with them America’s views and values.”

The OIC has permanent delegations to the UN and the EU.

Gervase@aumitpartners.co.uk

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