On August 22, the U.N. marks the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. It is a day designated by the U.N. for member states to reflect on their efforts to combat intolerance, discrimination and violence against persons based on religion or belief. The day was established as a direct response to the ever-growing issue of violence based on religion or belief, including in their most severe manifestations, international crimes such as crimes against humanity, war crimes and even genocide.
While the day was established as a direct response to the atrocities perpetrated by Daesh against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq, and especially Yazidis, Christians and others, similar acts of violence continue to this day globally. The 2014 genocide unleashed by Daesh was followed by the Burmese military’s atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims, the Chinese government’s atrocities against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria, atrocities against the Tigrayans in Ethiopia, to name only a few cases where the severity of the crimes meet the legal definition of international crimes. While in the majority of these cases, the situation has been analyzed as ethnic in origin, in all theses cases there is a strong religious element that should not be neglected, and especially if such targeting is grounded in law. Ultimately, even if the atrocities are addressed but the law that gave rise to such atrocities remains, further atrocities will follow.
For example, a few years before some of the worst attacks on the Rohingya Muslim communities, the Burmese legislature introduced new laws that affected not only the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief but also the existence of religious communities. For example, the Religious Conversion Law regulates conversion by way of imposing an extensive approval process. The Population Control Law legalizes the introduction of special zones with population control measures. One such population control measure is a “three-year birth spacing.” The law on population control is aimed specifically at Muslim communities, to prevent births within the group.
Similarly, in Xinjiang, the government introduced laws aimed at “religious extremism,” defined as “expressions and behaviors that are influenced by extremism, rendering radical religious ideas, and rejecting and intervening in normal production and life” but aimed them at any religious manifestation. Among the prohibited activities are practices that would otherwise be allowed in accordance with basic rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, and especially, religious manifestation or the parental right to educate their children in accordance with parent’s religious beliefs.
In places where the atrocities are perpetrated by non-state actors, it is often the inaction of the state-actors and glaring impunity that enables the perpetrators to continue unabated, but also provides a fertile ground for further and future atrocities. If the atrocities by non-state actors are not investigated and prosecuted, further crime will follow. There is no doubt about it.
Afghanistan is another place where religious minorities are at risk of atrocity crimes now that the Taliban took over. The situation of religious minorities was under threat even before the recent developments. However, the Taliban take-over marks a new era for religious minorities and it will not be a good one. As Amnesty International reported, in July 2021, the Taliban shot six men and tortured three to death including “one man who was strangled with his own scarf and had his arm muscles sliced off.” The Hazara Shia community fears the worst. This fear is substantiated by years of persecution and the recent developments. The threat faced by the Hazara Shias and other religious minorities must be taken seriously.
On this International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, we need to reaffirm the right to freedom of religion or belief of all, and work towards an environment that accommodates the full enjoyment of the right for all. In order to do so, we must ensure the comprehensive protections of the right to freedom of religion or belief and their full implementation. We must accommodate interfaith dialogue. We must challenge harmful speech and practices dehumanizing individuals and whole communities. We must recognize and understand the issue of persecution based on religion or belief, its different forms and manifestations. We must not only address acts of violence based on religion or belief once they occur, but act on incidents of intolerance, discrimination, harassment and long before we see bodies on the streets. We must ensure justice and accountability in all cases. Until then, we will see more acts of violence based on religion or belief targeting some of the most vulnerable communities.