Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

IDLO report: freedom of religion not a zero sum game

Freedom of religion should not be considered a zero sum game, where religious rights stand in opposition to other human rights and one person’s win is another person’s loss, according to a new report on the right to freedom of religion and the law published by the International Development Law Organization (IDLO).

The right to freedom of religion is one of the most fundamental human rights and one of the few that is required to be protected not just in times of peace, but also in times of war. Yet in practice, the freedom to practice one’s belief – or not to practice any – often clashes with other freedoms, rights and values.

When one person’s faith becomes another person’s constraint on freedom, states must carefully consider the scope of the law to protect the right to practice religion and what kind of limits to place on religious practices that interfere with the rights of others.

‘The law has the responsibility to protect, but the law also has the responsibility sometimes to stand back and not interfere in what can be the most sensitive, the most personal of decisions,’ said IDLO’s Director-General, Irene Khan, at a conference in Rome to launch the report. ‘This balance has to be drawn very carefully by policymakers.’

IDLO’s report, Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Law: Current Dilemmas and Lessons Learned, funded by the Government of Italy, highlights the risks to freedom of religion in both religious and secular societies and signals where rule of law approaches can contribute to safeguarding this freedom.

The report is published in a year over the course of which the world has borne witness to egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion and discrimination against religious minorities.

Participants of the conference recalled acts of terrorism committed in the name of religion – such as the attack on civilians in a café in Dhaka – and paid tribute to the genocide committed against the Yazidi minority in Iraq, atrocities committed by ISIS across the Middle East, the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, and discrimination against the Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar.

At the same time, speakers noted divisive movements sweeping Western societies, encouraged by politicians, who portray diversity as a threat to democracy and religious differences as a risk for stability and security.

Mario Giro, Italian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, said peaceful co-existence was being jeopardized by extremism, xenophobia and nationalism.

‘People are closing themselves off behind walls and searching for ethnic and national purity. Nationalist movements are re-emerging, and we know those can turn into wars. This is a problem of democracy – how to live together under common rules, even though we are different,’ said Mr. Giro.

IDLO’s message was one of equality. The rule of law is based on the fundamental principle of equal protection and equality: everyone is equal in the eyes of the law; everyone is equally accountable to the law.

We believe that rule of law frameworks are key to finding solutions for the promotion and protection of freedom of religion that are effective, fair and sustainable. IDLO’s report affirms the importance of working together to build more resilient and secure societies based on tolerance, compassion and mutual respect for all. 

Additional information

Further conference details and resources available here

Additional coverage of the conference by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy​ here


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