Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is a cornerstone of OSCE commitments protecting human rights. The 1989 Vienna Concluding Document declared that participating States will “take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination against individuals or communities on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, political, economic, social and cultural life, and to ensure the effective equality between believers and non-believers.” The document went on to declare that participating States will “foster a climate of mutual tolerance and respect between believers of different communities as well as between believers and non-believers.” Corporately, the participating States have agreed to a rich body of commitments meant to facilitate not frustrate the profession and practice of religion. In too many OSCE countries today, however, government officials use restrictive laws and ignore constitutional protections in such a way as to unjustifiably limit the practice of religion for members of many unpopular groups.
The drafters of OSCE agreements on religious freedom evidently recognized the important role governments play in fostering a climate of tolerance in their societies. Government intolerance of religious groups, in most cases, will only lead to greater intolerance among their populace. One elementary responsibility of the state in this regard is non-discrimination towards individual members or groups. This issue was addressed at the ad hoc meeting hosted by the Dutch in the summer of 2001, which highlighted how, in the OSCE region, policies that favor certain religious groups tend to, as a corollary, penalize other religious groups by denying legal personality or equal status. By institutionalizing discriminatory policies toward a group, government actions can have the effect of stigmatizing certain religious communities. In some OSCE countries, this has taken the form of special lists, centers offering one-sided information or burdensome registration laws creating hurdles impossible to overcome. Such acts, especially by EU countries, are especially worrisome as many incoming EU countries are copying such acts and regulations, often without the long-standing democratic practices and protections to prevent discrimination or abuse. We urge countries that have hierarchical structures to examine their laws carefully to determine if they are unjustifiably restricting or penalizing those citizens who do not belong to these particular religious bodies.