Jun 01, 2020

Self-Determination and Freedom of Religion in light of SDG16

On 1 June 2020, the UNPO submitted a report to the United Nations General Assembly on Eliminating Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and the Achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16). Highlighting the importance of the right to self-determination to eliminate intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief, the report shows how authoritarian states use punitive legislation to justify their persecution of religions minorities.

UNPO welcomes the initiative of the Special Rapporteur and encourages the United Nations to promote the realization of the right to self-determination as a precondition to safeguarding other human rights at the heart of the SDGs.  As long as minority groups are kept marginalized from political decision-making, they will remain exposed to discrimination and human rights violations.

Below is a summary of the UNPO’s Submission to the UN General Assembly

Currently, more than a quarter of UNPO member peoples face persecution based on their religion or belief. This is true irrespective of underlying creed, affecting Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and others. Excluded from adequate national and international representation, these communities are left in a state of significant vulnerability and exposed to systematic intimidation, violence and discrimination.

As a response to the growing attacks on freedom of religion of its members, in March 2020 UNPO released a Catalogue Report on Religious Freedom of Unrepresented Peoples. The report shows how those whose self-determination rights are denied are also vulnerable to religious persecution. Paradoxically, the report found that most countries that systematically violate religious freedom have a constitution that protects the right, albeit in different forms.

Despite this ostensible constitutional protection of religious freedom, these governments have tried to introduce (legal) policies through which state persecution of religious minorities has been legitimised. As such, the UNPO report explores two key concepts that help to identify in which ways repression against religious and belief minorities are being justified by authoritarian states – the securitisation and  politicisation of religion.


An important reason why some states resort to the persecution of persons based on their distinct religion or belief is that these governments – which are most often authoritarian – perceive religious or cultural differences as a threat to state control. In particular, the predominance of religious or ideological doctrine as a basis for governance has meant that minorities explicitly have fewer rights than majority groups in these countries. In other words, severe persecution of religious minority groups often follows from the inextricable link between state control and religious or ideological doctrine as a basis for governance.

As religious differences are perceived by many authoritarian states as threatening their control over society, the first main trend that can be identified from this report is the securitisation of religion. This is often particular to states that have an ideological doctrine as a basis for governance, such as China and Laos. In this sense, a government moves issues such as political dissent or expressions of a distinct religion out of the political realm by framing these issues as security threats. This is called a “securitising move”.


A second trend that can be discerned from UNPO’s report - and one that is very much related to the securitisation of religion but not entirely similar – is the politicisation of religion. This is often particular to states that have a religious doctrine as their basis for governance, such as Pakistan and Iran. In countries where politics and religion are intertwined, certain religious communities that do not conform to the dominant or state religion are regarded as a threat to the state and society. In this sense, the dominant or state religion is used as a tool of exclusion to marginalise, isolate and discriminate against religious minority groups.

By framing expressions and practices of non-recognised religious minorities as blasphemous or offensive to state religion, repressive governments legitimise persecuting these groups. This religious persecution is often legalised – and sometimes even constitutionalised – through the introduction of blasphemy and related laws.

Both the securitisation and politicisation of religion are worrying developments as they have been widely used by state and non-state actors to persecute persons based on their religion or belief with impunity. The increasing use of restrictive laws by authoritarian governments to justify the repression of religious and belief minorities - particularly under the guise of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism since 9/11 - has only worsened the situation.

In the meantime, repressive states often disrespect their own constitutions and show disregard to the United Nations human rights mechanisms, in many cases deliberately manipulating UN procedures to escape punitive measures.

For more information about the ways in which religious and belief minorities are repressed and persecuted, please see our Report on Freedom of Religion, as well as the UNPO’s Submission to the UN General Assembly.