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Upholding the Responsibility to Protect: The Role of Religious Leaders in Preventing Atrocity Crimes

On 20 September 2016, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations held a Ministerial Side Event, “Upholding the Responsibility to Protect: The Role of Religious Leaders in Preventing Atrocity Crimes,” with the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect as well as The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an international norm intended to ensure that the international community will always act to halt atrocities including genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. R2P was adopted unanimously in 2005 at the UN World Summit, the largest gathering of Heads of State and Government in history.

The meeting was called to order by H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Cleopas Auza, Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer, Holy See. Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, gave the opening remarks. The distinguished speakers included the following: H.E. Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See; Mr. Adama Dieng, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser of the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide; Ms. Bani Dugal, Bahai International, Director; Imam Yahya Pallavicini, Italian Religious Islamic Community CO.RE.IS; and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Senior Rabbi of New York City’s Park East Synagogue.

The following questions guided the discussion:

  • How can religious leaders and actors work together with governments and other institutions to help them fulfill their responsibility to protect and to promote inclusivity, dialogue and respect for diversity?
  • What do religious leaders and faith-based organizations need from governments and other institutions to fulfill their mission of peace-making?
  • How can religious leaders and actors contribute to preventing and countering incitement to hatred, hostility and violence?
  • How can religious leaders be encouraged to speak out not only when their community is targeted, but also when a religious community different to their own is targeted?
  • How can religious communities utilize social media to amplify positive speech and actively promote tolerance?
  • During times of crisis, what can religious leaders do to protect religious minorities within their communities?
  • In post-atrocity situations, how can religious leaders and actors contribute to the truth and reconciliation processes necessary to heal divided societies?

Cardinal Parolin addressed the duties of religious leaders to highlight principles and ethical values written in the human heart by God, i.e. the natural moral law; to foster respect for life, human dignity, charity, and solidarity; and to condemn all forms of using religious to justify violence against others in the name of God. He contended that national authorities must recognize freedom of religion as fundamental human right not to be relegated to private sphere.

Mr. Dieng began her remarks by sharing a quotation from Pope Francis which Cardinal Parolin also referenced: “To kill in the name of God is satanic.” He also spoke about the misuse and manipulation of religion by parties acting out of self-interest by feeding on people’s fears. Moreover, Mr. Dieng stressed that conditions of inclusion, including religious identity, lay the ground for social and economic development and prosperity as well as states which can withstand religious misappropriation. Noting that religious leaders sow the seeds of transformation, Mr. Dieng expressed the hope that this side event would do the same. He committed himself to the work, and referred to Fez plan of action. (This plan will be treated later in this post).

Ms. Dugal observed that the religions of the world share the concept that service to humanity is service to God. This commonality serves to show that different religions can cooperate to pursue the common good even amid doctrinal differences. As such, religious leaders can unlock spiritual and social capacity and can demonstrate how to apply religious principles and noble ideals to the advancement of humanity. Ms. Dugal also pointed out that doing so can require unnoticed sacrifice on the part of religious leaders, so she shared examples to give them their due.

Imam Pallavicini, Imam of Milan, began by quoting the Koran, verse 5.32, which had earlier been quoted by Mr. Dieng. He stated that this verse, to the effect that to kill a single soul is like killing all mankind while to save a single soul is like saving all mankind, is how Muslims understand crime and atrocity. In contrast to violence perpetrated with God or religion as a pretext, Imam Pallavicini contended that humanity is a universe of religions, cultures, and citizenships which must contribute to the common good so that every person can realize fullness of his or her identity and nature. Against the arrogance or indifference which can result from secularization and globalization, Imam Pallavicini connected the three dimension of the human person – spirit, soul, and body – to three actions – interreligious education, social participation, and global security – so as to prevent radicalism and relativism while preserving the right to live out religious faith with dignity and security.

Rabbi Schneier began by noting that the Holy See’s presence at this event indicated Pope Francis’ commitment to lead religious leaders to take a stand against the manipulation of faith. As a Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Schneier even as a child was waiting for R2P, so he saluted everyone present as responding to the psalmist’s injunction to “hear the cry of the oppressed” as well as to the Bible’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” As founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, he stressed the foundation’s motto that “a crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion.” Moreover, Rabbi Schneier stressed the need to move beyond tolerance (which implies superiority) to mutual acceptance and mutual respect. He concluded by expressing the hope that future meetings of this kind would not be “just a ministerial side show,” for political leaders need the help of religious leaders, and religious leaders are ready to give it.

Only a quarter of an hour remained for questions and comments. Particularly notable were Spain’s observations that, on the one hand, politics and social issues, rather than religion, are the root causes of the problems under discussion, and that, on the other hand, a gender-sensitive approach is necessary to address atrocities and R2P.

The event concluded by noting that these problems highlight individual, national, and international collective responsibility and that people of faith and religious leaders have an enormous role to play in addressing the issues at hand.

The event may be viewed on UN Web TV here.

Many thoughts offered by the speakers were related to the Plan of Action drafted in Fez, Morocco, 24 April 2015 called “The Role of Religious Leaders in Preventing Incitement that could lead to Atrocity Crimes.” The plan of action includes

  1. Monitoring and public reporting incitement that could lead to atrocity crimes
  2. Developing, speaking out, circulating “alternative” messages or counter-speech
  3. Engaging in dialogue with the speakers responsible for incitement and with the audience potentially tempted to respond
  4. Building and/or revising education, adult education curricula, and capacity building
  5. Engaging in or strengthening inter-religious and inter-religious dialogue and activities
  6. Engaging in dialogue on grievances
  7. Strengthening clarity of thinking and messages
  8. Engaging with, and seek support from, political leaders
  9. Other recommendations of broad scope ranging from ensuring a gender perspective to establishing a code of ethics for religious journalists and religious media

Since the time available for questions and comments at this side even was only fifteen minutes, perhaps readers of this blog will wish to continue constructive dialogue by commenting below.

Brian K. Muzás

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