Threats to human rights across the broad Middle East region are numerous and, in many cases, grave. Promoting and enhancing respect for human rights, together with core related principles such as freedom, equality, and the rule of law, form a very important part of the EU’s dialogue and engagement with countries in the region. The right to religious freedom is an area of particular concern. Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right and a prerequisite of any democratic state and I am greatly disturbed by the continuing, and indeed increasing, prevalence of persecution and attacks on people based on their religious beliefs, including in the Middle East region.
Both Ireland and the EU attach great importance to combating such forms of discrimination or persecution based on religion or belief. In June 2013, under the Irish Presidency, the EU adopted Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief, which reaffirmed the EU’s determination to promote, in its external human rights policy, freedom of religion or belief as a right to be exercised by everyone, everywhere. These Guidelines were a priority for the Irish Presidency and we engaged extensively in the drafting process. The EU has also taken a number of steps in recent years in support of freedom of religion or belief, including issuing Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on the matter, for example in February 2011.
Ireland raises regularly the issue of the safety of religious minorities through its official bilateral contacts with many countries in the region, stressing in particular the responsibility of any state or government to protect all its citizens and minorities. Of course, in situations of general instability and insecurity, such as in Iraq or Syria, this is especially difficult. Ireland also works with our partners in the EU to raise the issue in multilateral fora such as the UN Human Rights Council, as part of the EU’s human rights policy.
The issue of freedom of religion or belief is one of our priorities as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and we have played a central role in the negotiation of two important resolutions on this issue in the past year.
Officials from my Department also meet frequently with members of religious minorities from the Middle East region, to hear first hand their concerns and to discuss issues affecting their communities. They will continue to do so, and the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of religion or belief will remain a key element of our engagement with countries in the Middle East region.