Last Thursday, I attended a meeting of the UN General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian & Cultural Committee–the so-called “Third Committee”–for presentation of the annual report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Beilefeldt. (Earlier in the day, the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion, which I direct, co-hosted a briefing with Bielefeldt.) It was an interesting experience.
Professor Beilefeldt is a serious, energetic, and well-motivated scholar, and his report, which focuses on protecting the right of conversion in international human rights law, is worth reading. In some respects, the Committee meeting was worthwhile, too. The Third Committee is a huge body, with delegates from all UN member states; it meets in an oversized room that feels like a repurposed Costco. There is a platform at the front, where the Chair and Special Rapporteur sit, and rows and rows of tables with delegates and staff. The Special Rapporteur presents a summary of his report, and delegates are then allowed to respond and ask questions, which they do in the studied, affectless monotone of diplomatic conferences.
About a dozen state delegations responded to Professor Beilefeldt’s report. Some interventions were revealing. For example, Germany and the Netherlands stressed the need for protecting atheism as a belief. The Canadian and Chinese delegates got into a dustup over whether Falun Gong is a religion or a cult; the Chinese delegate advised Canadians to attend to their own human rights abuses. (Ah, yes, that’s the problem, Canadian human rights abuses.) The UK’s delegate objected to Beilefeldt’s suggestion that official state religions were necessarily problematic for religious minorities. Russia insisted that the right to try to convert others, which Beilefeldt endorsed in his report, must not be exercised in a way that injures “human dignity”; I take it this was a reference to Russia’s anti-proselytism laws. Iran asked when Beilefeldt would address the pressing issue of insults to religion.
As a reflection of some governments’ views, the meeting was, as I say, pretty interesting. But there was a desultory feel about the whole thing. Many delegates seemed bored. They paid little attention to the proceedings, spending their time shopping online, listening to voice mails, and chatting with each other. (Here’s a thought: if people want to spend their time surfing the Net, why not conduct Committee meetings via Skype? That would eliminate the necessity of sitting in a repurposed Costco all afternoon and save a lot of money.) Also, it was surprising how many states, including Western democracies with large UN missions, were represented by junior diplomats. It’s no crime to be young, of course, and I’m sure these twentysomethings know their stuff. All they have to do is read prepared statements, anyway. But sending junior people doesn’t suggest that governments are giving these issues priority. You’d think governments would know that. Perhaps they do.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.