The European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB) has taken part in the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017 as we did in the previous years.
From the 11th to the 22nd of September 2017 the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017 has taken place in Warsaw at the Narodowy Stadium being organised by the OSCE ODIHR - Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe - Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the largest Human Rights Meeting organised in Europe on a yearly basis and it sees the participation of 57 States representatives and several NGOs, and other civil society organisations and media.
FOB has been actively present at all the sessions both as FOB and through associated member associations like CAPLP and Soteria International.
Other "friend associations" included Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), European Muslim Initiative for Social Coesion (EMISCO), All Faiths Network, Affirm Human Rights, to name but a few.
Alessandro Amicarelli with representatives of friend associations
I was honoured to make two statements and recommendations to member States on behalf of FOB in session 6 and in session 11 respectively about freedom of religion and belief and refugees and other displaced persons.
In the first recommendation FOB has analysed some human rights issues faced by minority groups in the larger Europe by specifically highlighting the insufficient implementation of the FORB (Freedom of Religion and Belief) guidelines in Europe, the issue concerning state interference in religious matters and also the severe problem of religious discrimination in some countries including Russia and few others.
In our statement we have recalled the tactic to shut down religious groups by labelling them cults or extremist groups or by targeting some of their practices as non compliant with the national cultural heritage and/or by simply declaring such groups outlaw.
Several cases have been recalled like for instance the case of Austria when the authorities tried to refuse the granting of the legal personality to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Religionsgemeinschaft der Zeugen Jehovas and Others v. Austria ECHR application no. 40825/98 judgement 31 July 2008); the case of French authorities to prohibit the ostentation of any religious symbols in public places in the name of the French-type secularism (Law no. 228/2004 of 15 March 2004), and also French legislation permitting to shut down a faith group should the leader be found guilty of serious offenses (Law no. 504/2001 of 12 June 2001 – “About-Picard”), and it was also the case of Jehovah’s witnesses in the Russian Federation and in Bulgaria, as well as in other countries.
We have also pointed out the tight links between the French anti-religious movements and the some associations in the Russian Federation where the Jehovah’s witnesses have recently been declared outlaw on the ground they are considered an extremist group; other groups are experiencing problems in that country and they include peaceful Muslims communities, Pentecostals, Church of Scientology, Jews and other groups as well (source Portal-Credo.ru). It needs to be recalled the Russian Federation, while not belonging to the European Union, is though a full member of the Council of Europe and its bound to the content of the European Convention on Human Rights and has to respect and implement the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that has declared the Russian Federation had violated religious freedom and other connected freedoms several times.
We have emphasised that state authorities must keep neutral when dealing with religious matters and have to stop using labels and behaviours that directly or indirectly damage one specific or more religious groups. Throughout the years both the Council of Europe and the United Nations Human Rights Commission have provided clear instructions and recommendations to States as to how to deal with these matters such as by preventing the use of negative labelling like sects or cults when referring to minority groups and to avoid any such actions that would cause prejudice to minority religions whether or not connected to historical religious traditions (see Council of Europe recommendations 1178/ 92 and 1412/99; Human Rights Commission reports 33/2000 and 42/2001).
We have also recalled once again the abnormal Anti Cult Squad of the Italian Police asking the government to provide figures that have never been disclosed so far.
We have concluded our statement by asking the OSCE to keep doing their best to consider the rights of minority religions in the OSCE area so that the member states fully implement their international commitments to ensure the right of all individuals to profess and practice religion or belief, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, and to manifest their religion or belief through teaching, practice, worship and observance, including through transparent and non-discriminatory laws, regulations, practices and policies (OSCE Decision MC.DEC/3/13 on Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion or Belief).
In this line we have suggested OSCE to involve minority religions actively in the OSCE activities by appointing one or more representatives of minority groups that could work in cooperation with the representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that are already represented at the OSCE.
In the statement made on the 18 of September in session 11 regarded the cases of Muslim refugees unlawfully rejected at the Italian border; we particularly highlighted the problem faced by Muslim refugees holding valid and regular United Nations Travel Documents issued by the British authorities and travelling to Italy.
The holders of this type of document are exempted from the requirement of visa to enter some countries that are signatory members of the European Agreement on the Abolition of Visa for Refugees of the Council of Europe adopted in 1959.
Italy and the United Kingdom are signatory members of this Agreement and both parties agree to let refugees holding valid UN travel document issued by the authorities of either country to be exempted from a visa to enter the country.
We reported about a single specific case used as an example; the refugee was travelling from London to Rome and his circumstances would meet all the criteria, in fact he wanted to spend less than 3 months in the country, specifically he was supposed to attend a religious ceremony of a Sufi order and leave 48 hours later; he had a return ticket, proof of registration for the ceremony and details of the family that would host him overnight.
His travel document, like all travel documents of this type, does clearly mention in the page next to the page with photograph and personal details that the holder is exempted from visa to travel to a number of countries that are part to the Strasbourg Agreement of 1959, including Italy.
Nonetheless the Italian Border Police rejected him and forced him travel back to London in few hours, on the ground he had no visa and that the Italian government had supposedly adopted directives to prevent Muslim refugees enter the country following the terrorist attacks back in November 2016.
We asked the Italian government to provide evidence about the existence of such directives in contrast with the official legislation or to provide different explanation as to why this happens in Italy.
The representative of Italy replied by reporting the official legislation according to which Refugees travelling to Italy need a visa unless
- they hold a valid permit of sojourn issued by the authorities of a Schengen country OR
- they hold a UN travel Document issued by the authorities of a State that is signatory member of the Strasbourg Agreement of 1959
He then concluded by stating that given that the United Kingdom is not a state party to the Schengen area, the refugees travelling to Italy do need a valid visa.
While his first statement, that he read from the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that we had also recalled, was totally correct, his conclusions however were not in line with the statements from the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he had just read.
The United Kingdom is not in the Schengen area, that's correct, but the United Kingdom is a signatory member of the Strasbourg Agreement of 1959 on the abolition of visas for refugees; hence if they hold and show at the border a valid UN travel document issued by the British authorities, they do not need a visa, as the Italian representative had reported in the first part of his response, regardless the UK is a member of Schengen or not.
We believe Italy has adopted restrictive regulations for Muslim refugees travelling to Italy to prevent the risk of terrorist attacks; if Italy wants to adopt such directives, this has to be done in the official way, and in compliance with the existing International and European laws; in the specific case Italy can decide to withdraw from the Strasbourg Agreement of 1959 by following the procedure contained in art. 7 of the same Agreement.
Any unilateral actions aimed at restricting people's rights and not based on any legislation does make the action illegal and unfair and beyond the attributions of the government.
We want a safer Europe and a better Europe were all people, from any background and whatever is their faith or belief or non belief, can fully enjoy their rights and freedoms while respecting the laws and the rights of others, the governments not being exempted from that.
In this line FOB is planning more events for the months to come in cooperation with academicians, human rights experts, members of minority groups, lawyers and other professionals and other associations and networks working in the same field.
Fighting terrorism is indeed a priority but cannot be an excuse to suppress people’s rights in a democratic society that has the rule of law and the respect of fundamental human rights as its main constitutional principles.
Spokesman and President of
European Federation for Freedom of Belief - FOB