Banning Political Use of Religion: A Clear and Simple Approach

By Adriana Lujan-Flores, Secular AZ Legal Intern

On January 31, 2019, British-Iraqi journalist Salam Sarhan wrote an opinion piece for The Independent calling for a new, international approach to prevent countries from using religion for political purposes. According to Sarhan, previous attempts to combat the political use of religion were too divisive and confrontational, enabling religious extremists to rally support by claiming their faith was being attacked. The article received significant support, leading to the launch of the International Treaty to Ban the Political Use of Religion, or BPUR for short.

The concise, uncomplicated treaty begins with a preamble focusing on promoting equality and ending discrimination while respecting all religions. The preamble acknowledges the divisive issues of similar past attempts and demonstrates how BPUR will be different. Each goal is clearly stated and compact, making the treaty to read and comprehend.

After the preamble, the treaty is broken into 14 short articles. The first five articles delineate the responsibilities undertaken by all parties in the agreement and the central objectives: promoting equality in respect and dignity, prohibiting discrimination in rights and duties, banning religious exclusion, and bolstering freedom of belief and practice. The rest of the treaty outlines how BPUR will be ratified and implemented, how amendment proposals will be considered, and how parties to BPUR will cooperate and assist one another.

The designated depositary of the treaty is the Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Ratification by 40 states is required in order for the treaty to enter into force, and it would apply to all non-party states after ratification by at least 90 states. Parties who wish to withdraw from BPUR must provide a full list of reasons for withdrawal and the treaty is intended to last for an unlimited duration.

As of now, BPUR has international support from political leaders in more than a dozen countries and the European Parliament. It also has a number of institutional supporters. In his article, Sarhan suggested that the movement to promote the treaty could be similar to that of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has been joined by 191 states and has remained in force for over 50 years. If BPUR can garner similar momentum, it could have a similar global reach.

The Signing of the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty in Moscow (Photo: UN)

According to a study by the NYU Center on International Cooperation, there are several factors to consider in order to develop a successful international agreement. First, the most effective agreements must have advance political buy-in and support from each states’ key domestic constituencies, including political parties and government bureaucracy groups. So far, BPUR has been successful in accumulating legislative supporters. However, the treaty may see pushback from very conservative political parties who use religion as a weapon for control. While the treaty is worded in such a way that no reasonable person could fault it, we have seen how conservative legislators in the United States get defensive when they are accused of misusing religion to push agendas such as abortion prohibitions.

The NYU study also emphasized the important of implementation and enforcement mechanisms in successful agreements. Article 12 of BPUR outlines a plan to establish a global monitoring mechanism to document and report on violations. Article 13 details BPUR’s plan to enter the treaty into force. In this way, BPUR already has a plan to overcome a difficulty faced by other international agreements.

The political use of religion has been behind countless conflicts and wars. It has been used to justify discrimination and violence. The importance of an international agreement like BPUR cannot be understated. BPUR has a goal to be adopted in the 76th UN General Assembly in September 2021.

BPUR accepts donations at their website. They are also seeking support from legislators and influential people and are looking for volunteers.

Adriana Lujan-Flores
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