This was a joint American-European multi-faith initiative addressed to leaders of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and it can be viewed as a successful case study in the emerging model of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable and the vision of a global interlocking network of such “safe spaces” with joint, multi-faith advocacy actions on multiple continents that are strategically timed and coordinated to increase impact.

The Situation

  • A report by Rapporteur Rudy Salles (France), “The protection of minors against excesses of sects,” with draft resolution and draft recommendation, posed a threat to the human rights and fundamental freedoms that are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Yet it was adopted by the PACE Committee of Legal Affairs and Human Rights on March 3, 2014.[1]
  • And it was scheduled to be presented to the full PACE on or about April 7, 2014, for a vote on adoption.
  • If PACE adopted this report as drafted, it would have taken a major step backwards in terms of religious tolerance and the rights of religious minorities in the 47 countries in the Council of Europe.

The Odds

  • At the beginning of the participant-led initiative, a European who was familiar with the situation predicted we had no chance to succeed.
  • Statistically, he gave us a 0.01% chance.

The Joint Multi-Faith Advocacy Actions

  • A joint American-European multi-faith letter was drafted and attracted 67 signatures (31 American + 36 European), making it the most successful participant-led initiative of the Roundtable at the time.
  • On the American side, some signers of the letter also did multi-faith meetings with congressional offices, and Congressmen Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Mike McIntyre (D-NC) signed and sent a bipartisan congressional letter to leaders of PACE.
  • On the European side, one signer of the letter launched an online petition to give individual citizens a way to participate, and this petition attracted over 12,300 signatures from across Europe and America. A large percent of the signers actually live in Russia.
  • Also on the European side, multiple signers of the letter co-sponsored a conference/side event at the Council of Europe two days before the vote, and engaged in joint advocacy actions.
  • Several other organizations signed letters of their own, and positive media was generated leading up to the vote. A European signer of the letter organized all of the letters and articles in one place on its website.

The Outcome—an Underdog Victory for Religious Freedom

  • The multi-faith letter had a great impact on Members of Parliament (MPs) and during the debate on adoption of the report in question, many of them explicitly mentioned the online petition as well.
  • The MPs said they were persuaded by the number of letters, the number of organizations, the number of people that protested against the report, and the diversity of their backgrounds.
  • While the report in question was approved by a vote of 29-14 (with 11 abstentions), it was heavily amended to remove its most concerning provisions, and the problematic “draft recommendation” was stripped out entirely. A resolution is non-binding, while a recommendation would have been sent to the Council of Ministers for action by the 47 member states.
  • The adopted resolution expresses general concern about abuses against minors by “sects,” but also recommends respecting the rights of children and parents to freedom of religion or belief and freedom from discrimination.
  • Further, language was included that “calls on member States to ensure that no discrimination is allowed on the basis of which movement is considered as a sect or not, that no distinction is made between traditional religions and non-traditional religious movements, new religious movements or ‘sects’ when it comes to the application of civil and criminal law, and that each measure which is taken towards non-traditional religious movements, new religious movements or ‘sects’ is aligned with human rights standards as laid down by the European Convention on Human Rights and other relevant instruments protecting the dignity inherent to all human beings and their equal and inalienable rights.”
  • Details on the vote and amendments are available here.
  • The final adopted resolution is available here.

Media Reports

  • A report in The Economist, “One man’s sect…”, said the vote was “a victory in PACE for purist advocates of religious liberty, as a long-planned move to curb the activities of ‘sects’ was unexpectedly knocked off course.”
  • The Council of Europe’s blog, Human Rights Europe, also reported on the issue.