20 June 2014 A group of independent United Nations human rights experts today called on the Government of Myanmar to do away with a draft bill imposing restrictions on religious conversion, stressing the right of every individual to freely choose or to change their faith.
The experts – on freedom of religion, minority issues and human rights in Myanmar – warned that the draft bill, made public on 27 May inviting comments from monks and the public, sets out a cumbersome application and approval process for conversion while purporting to make it easier for individuals to freely convert.
It also provides for disproportionate criminal sanctions on offenders, according to a news release issued by the three experts. In addition, some provisions are “vague and subject to interpretation that may lead to discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities or the poor.”
The experts noted that seeking comments from the public on draft legislation is commendable in promoting political participation of the people. “But in this instance,” they added, “this process appears partial to the interest of one particular group and simply propagates the spread of incitement of racial and religious hatred, which the Government must do more to address.”
The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, noted that State interferences into the right to change one’s religion or belief are “illegitimate and incompatible with international human rights standards.”
“Freedom of religion or belief is a human right, irrespective of State approval, and respect for freedom of religion or belief does not depend on administrative registration procedures,” he stressed. “I am very disturbed by the attempt to regulate religious conversion.”
Rita Izsák, the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, highlighted the potential for the bill to impact negatively on religious freedoms and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
“I urge Myanmar to strengthen its protections in line with international standards not to create obstacles to the enjoyment of religious identity, minority rights, and the right of every individual to freely choose or to change their faith,” she said.
The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, noted some “worrying backtracking” on Myanmar’s progress towards a more democratic nation in the last six months, including through the arbitrary arrest and the prosecution of activists and journalists deemed anti-establishment.
Ms. Lee warned the draft bill – one of four composing a legislative package on the protection of race and religion – “signals the risk of Myanmar going off-track on its path to being a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights.”
Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.
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