The freedom to openly express your beliefs and adhere to your chosen faith is a fundamental human right. The United Nations Special Rapporteur gave his report on these issues at the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs of the Kazakh Ministry of Culture and Sports Galym Shoikin took the time to discuss the meaning and content of the document with The Astana Times.
Could you explain what the UN Human Rights Council and the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief are?
The UN General Assembly (GA) established the Human Rights Council (HRC) on March 15, 2006. Every three years, the General Assembly selects 47 out of the 189 recognised countries to serve as members. The council is the most important division of the organisation, it is considered to be the leading international organisation in the field of human rights protection.
Kazakhstan was elected to the UN HRC for the first time on Nov. 12, 2006 at the 67th session of the GA in New York and is serving from 2013-2015. This is more evidence of international recognition of our progress on the promotion and protection of universal human rights and freedoms.
In 2009, the practice of inviting UN Special Rapporteurs responsible for various areas of human rights to our country began. It is important to emphasise that it is not an obligation but a right.
In recent years, Kazakhstan has demonstrated its goodwill and has invited special rapporteurs of all types to come and get acquainted with citizen rights. Nine experts have visited the country, including two who have visited more than once.
The UN Special Rapporteur’s mandate gives the opportunity to its holder to visit and get acquainted with the global status of various human rights through a state invitation. The Rapporteur summarises information throughout the year using findings from his visit and prepares preliminary and final data in the form of reports to be submitted at the next session of the UN HRC.
The Special Rapporteurs are independent in opinion in their assessments and are not even influenced by the UN itself.
Each report is crafted by experts in that particular field and is categorised by country. It should be noted that despite the fact that the reports are advisory in nature, they are very important to the image of any country in the eyes of the international community.
Could you discuss the UN Special Rapporteur’s visit regarding freedom of religion and belief in Kazakhstan?
UN Special Rapporteur Professor Heiner Bielefeldt’s visit to Kazakhstan to review the implementation of our country’s international human rights obligations regarding religion took place from March 26 to April 4, 2014.
By that time, we had already carried out preparatory work. On the eve of his visit, the then Agency for Religious Affairs, jointly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan held a briefing on the status of religious freedom in Kazakhstan for the diplomatic corps and international organisations accredited in the country. At the same time, the country’s first ever self-assessment on the matter was presented.
The government of Kazakhstan has created all the necessary conditions for an objective and comprehensive study of the state of religious freedom and religion in the country. During his visit, Professor Bielefeldt had the opportunity to meet with members of the Parliament, the Human Rights Ombudsman, and Agency for Religious Affairs, the Constitutional Council, the Supreme Court, the Commission for Human Rights under the President of Kazakhstan, the ministries of foreign affairs, internal affairs, justice, defence, culture as well as education and science.
Meetings with research organisation heads and the authors of a textbook for secondary school students titled the “Fundamentals of Religion” were held. The Special Rapporteur visited the Almaty and Karaganda regions and spoke with local leaders and visited schools.
During his interviews, Bielefeldt was given comprehensive information on compliance with the state’s policy regarding religion and international legal mandates as well as the answers to his questions. Also, he held independent meetings with representatives of various religious organisations, non-governmental and human rights organisations and diplomatic missions.
What was the report like to prepare?
The report was drafted throughout the course of the year because additional information and analysis of the measures adopted in Kazakhstan had to be collected on order to implement the given recommendations.
It is important to note that in order to form an objective assessment of the human rights situation in the country, state bodies comment on the recommendations given in the preliminary report and adopt a number of measures to further ensure freedom of religion.
What does the UN special rapporteur feel about the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana?
I would like to note that before the announcement of the submission of the report to the HRC, I held a meeting with Professor Bielefeldt and his team of experts. I informed him about our achievements and results of the implementation of one year to work according to the recommendations of the preliminary report. I also shared Kazakhstan’s future plans on the matter.
It should be noted that during the meeting, Professor Bielefeldt described Kazakhstan as a “model of interfaith and interethnic harmony.” In his opinion, the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is a worthy contribution to the global process of interaction between different faiths.
Would you describe how the report itself was presented to the UN HRC? What were its main findings?
Our report was made public on March 10, 2015 at the 28th session of the UN HRC at the United Nations in Geneva. In fact, a serious and broad overview of the state of religious freedom in Kazakhstan was presented to the 189 member states of the United Nations, international organisations, NGOs and the international media.
The report highlighted the achievements of our country regarding freedom of religion. Professor Bielefeldt noted the religious pluralism of Kazakhstan’s multi-confessional society.
He expressed his gratitude to the government of Kazakhstan for organising his visit. The only remark given at the meeting was concerning the need for further improvement of legislation regarding the mandatory registration of religious associations.
In my speech, I gave Kazakhstan’s position on the matter and talked about the measures being taken to promote freedom of belief and religion, including the rights of religious groups and equal freedoms for all religious groups.
What kind of work has our country already done in implementing the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur?
During the past year, we worked to educate civil servants, including law enforcement officials, about relations between the state and religions.
We have enacted additional mechanisms of interaction between the state and religious associations. In particular, regular working meetings of representatives of religious organisations were planned in all regions of the country and the capital. Other measures aimed at improving inter-religious cooperation are being implemented.
In order to improve religious legislation, we created an advisory working group consisting of heads of religious associations, independent experts and leaders of NGOs.
Now, we are focusing on religious education. Currently, we have developed a new training programme for Kazakh students.
In addition, large-scale outreach activities on state-denomination relations among the various segments of the population are being held.
We believe that the fact that all of this work that was carried out in a short time helped create the positive view of the state and prospects of human rights and freedom of religion in Kazakhstan that the UN experts took away. We can say that the UN high inspectorate seriously examined Kazakhstan.
In fact, we received positive feedback from the UN HRC. There is no doubt that the rapporteur’s visit and the subsequent report will depict Kazakhstan as a secular, democratic and legal state, where a high value is placed on people, human life, rights and freedoms.
In our opinion, the report’s positive tone was made possible by Kazakhstan’s cooperation with Professor Bielefeldt, detailed discussion and the implementation of his recommendations and the organisation of additional meetings and consultations with him. Efforts to implement the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations are currently underway.