Silence on the rights of non-believers in the EU Enlargement Progress Reports

16 October 2014

The importance of the reports

The annual reports prepared by the Commission on the progress of candidate and potential candidates for EU membership[1] are a strong tool in the promotion of human rights within these countries. The reports steward the accession process by criticising any lacklustre efforts within these countries in the areas of political, social and economic reform, whilst also praising any successes these states might have had in adopting EU Acquis[2]. Thus, these reports have become a decisive tool for the EU to exert their influence by ensuring that these countries do not fail in providing extensive rights for sexual, ethnic, and religious minorities.

Nevertheless, the 2014 reports have clearly failed to address the situation for non-believers in these countries, with not one single mention of their situation being present within the section on ‘Freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ in this year’s reports.

The Commission’s assessment

In the 2014 reports Albania[3] and Macedonia[4] received positive assessments in the area of Freedom of thought, conscience and religion, stating that in both countries laws upholding this right are enforced, and are respected without incident. However the assessment for every other country in this year’s reports was not so complimentary. Bosnia and Herzegovina[5] received a negative assessment, with numerous incidences of religious discrimination being reported, including instances of attacks on religious property, symbols, and even individuals. Montenegro[6] received a mixed assessment, being praised for guaranteeing freedom of thought, conscience and religion, whilst in contrast being criticised for sluggish efforts in regulating the registration of religious communities. Likewise Kosovo[7] was also given a mixed appraisal, as whilst the cultivation of inter-faith dialogue was commended, the government was criticised for failing to adopt the draft Law on Religion, which would strengthen religious freedoms for minorities.

Serbia[8] was particularly chastised for not doing more to stop discrimination and physical assaults against religious minorities, whilst the country’s registration process for religious communities was also labelled as being inconsistent and unclear. Moreover, access for religious minorities to religious services in their own language was criticised for not being readily available.

However, the strongest criticism in the progress reports with regards to freedom of thought, conscience and religion was reserved for Turkey. Key concerns[9] included;

  • The failure of Turkey to implement ECtHR rulings which exempt children from having to state the religion or philosophical convictions of their parents if they opt out of religion and ethics classes.
  • Discrimination against non-Muslim religious communities in the areas of property rights, access to justice, fundraising and the granting of residence and work permits to foreign clergy.
  • The presence of religious affiliation on identity cards, which was ruled by the ECtHR in the 2010 Sinan Işık v. Turkey as being in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
  • The jailing of Jehovas Witnesses for refusing to conduct military service (Turkey continues to be the only Council of Europe member without a conscientious objection clause for the military).

The report summed up Turkey’s progress in damning tones: “There is a need for comprehensive reform of legislation on freedom of thought, conscience and religion and application of this legislation, in line with ECtHR rulings, Council of Europe recommendations and EU standards”[10].

The situation for non-believers cannot be ignored

Clearly, when investigating the area of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, most of the attention has been placed on the rights of religious minorities. However no mention was made as to the specific rights of non-believers within any of the candidate and potential candidate countries, with only one fleeting reference to the ‘philosophical convictions’ of individuals being present within Turkey’s report. This is concerning, considering the importance the EU supposedly places on the rights of non-believers as shown by Article 9 of the ECHR[11] and the EU’s own adoption of the guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FRoB). The adoption of the guidelines is of particular importance, considering that these guidelines must underpin the EU’s foreign policy efforts – the area which the issue of EU enlargement falls under.

Negating to report on the situation for non-believers is one thing, but choosing to ignore outright attacks on the rights of non-believers is another thing altogether. Of all of the candidate countries, Turkey possesses the most repressive political climate for non-believers, with past progress reports declaring that "citizens professing a faith other than that of the majority, or with no faith, continued to experience discrimination[12]". However the 2014 report fails to report adequately on the situation for non-believers in Turkey, ignoring entirely instances such as in February of this year, when President Erdoğan equated Atheists with terrorists[13]. Moreover, there was a lack of criticism of the continuing existence of Article 216 of the Turkish Criminal Code[14] which has been used by authorities to curb the freedom of expression of Atheists, who are harassed and arrested for writing critical statements about religion either in books or online[15].

The rights of non-believers should form just as an important cornerstone of the progress reports as the rights of ethnic, sexual and religious minorities, and the Commission has failed to report on the challenges which non-believers face on a daily basis within potential and confirmed candidate countries. This is why the EHF calls on the Commission to include explicit references to the situation for non-believers in candidate countries in future reports. After all, if the EU truly believes that the right to freedom of expression for non-believers is a fundamental right, then the ability to exercise this right within candidate countries must be scrutinised, to better assess the commitment on behalf of these states to the advancement of fundamental human rights for all citizens, religious or otherwise.

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[1] The countries assessed were Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey.

[2] Each chapter refers to a specific area of EU law, including the economy, agricultural and environmental sectors and so forth - Full list of Acquis chapters.

[7] Kosovo Progress Report (2014: 17-18)

[8] Serbia Progress Report (2014: 45-46)

[9] Turkey Progress Report (2014: 53-55)

[11]Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom” – ECHR (1950: 10)

[14] Article 216 Subsection (c): “Any person who openly disrespects the religious belief of [a] group is punished with imprisonment from six months to one year if such act causes potential risk for public peace.”

[15] Immigration & Refugee Board of Canada (2013) – “Treatment of atheists by society and the authorities