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Mobilising Freedom of Religion or Belief as an Approach to Sustainable Development

In a compelling virtual address at PaRD’s Annual Forum 2023, Nazila Ghanea (UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief – FoRB) highlights the intertwined nature of freedom of religion or belief and sustainable development. Read her full speech.

Delving into the nuanced relationship between freedom of religion or belief and sustainable development, in her video message Nazila Ghanea underscored the urgent need for concrete actions. Credits: PaRD/GIZ

Dear colleagues,

It is a great pleasure to be able to address the 2023 PaRD Annual Forum on Religion and Sustainable Development. I regret not being able to join you as I am currently on a Country Visit to Sweden. I thank the organisers for their flexibility in allowing me to share my input with you via this video message.

As I am sure you are all only too aware, September marked the half-way point in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. No doubt you are also aware that events, discussions, and debates to mark this half-way point at all levels have been characterised by a sobering assessment of the progress achieved thus far. Unfortunately, the agenda is characterised by a significant underachievement and urgent action is necessary in order to address this.

In parallel, but on a somewhat longer time scale, we are currently in the countdown to the 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the 10th of December. This provides us with a moment to pause and consider what has been achieved to date. It gives me no pleasure to share that, of course, the human rights outlook globally leaves a huge amount to be desired.

It should come as no surprise that in my view, these two problems are intricately related, and the human right to freedom of religion or belief gives us one important lens through which they can be understood.

The relationship between ‘religion and sustainable development’ can be understood in many ways. To many of us it will rightly invoke the potential of religious communities and faith-based organisations to contribute towards the achievement of sustainable development. This is of great importance; indeed, sustainable development would be scarcely imaginable without the engagement of these actors.

When we speak of freedom of religion or belief, we are referring to something which is certainly complementary to the vital aim of maximising the potential of religious or belief communities and faith-based organisations in making sustainable development a lived reality.

Yet we should be precise about what we are speaking about when we speak about freedom of religion or belief. My predecessor, Ahmed Shaheed, identified four attributes of the right which we must keep in the back of our minds when we talk about freedom of religion or belief as a tool for achieving sustainable development. It is useful to return to these:

  1. Non-coercion in the exercise of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief;
  2. The freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in myriad ways;
  3. Non-discrimination on the basis of religion or belief; and
  4. The rule of law.

As actors interested in mobilising freedom of religion or belief as an approach to sustainable development, it is important to pay attention to these attributes. Let us briefly consider the implications of each in turn for the sustainable development project.


Coercion is a daily lived experience for marginalised religious or belief communities in many parts of the world. States or non-State groups, including those which may explicitly adhere to a particular religious doctrine, can mobilise the denial of access to vital services, such as healthcare, a means of coercing religious or belief minorities, or others who may be stigmatised in the name of religion or belief, to change their beliefs or at least their allegiance or the ability to vocalise that allegiance. A FoRB approach encourages us to be aware of the relationship between access to resources and services and coercion, and to control for this in the planning, implementation, and evaluation development projects.

This invites us to also be mindful of the power-relationships involved in development projects. How might development actors associated with a dominant religious community ensure that their contributions do not further the coercion of minorities, including those within their own tradition?


Manifestations of religion or belief vary hugely in accordance with different traditions, and the freedom to engage in these manifestations may only be subject to very exceptional limitations. One of many ways in which this right may interact with sustainable development is with regard to the use of land and resources: the effects of climate change, among many other things, can threaten the rituals and festivities of indigenous communities. Furthermore, as pressure on natural resources grows, how can the best use be made of them in a manner which takes account of and respects their potential spiritual significance to such communities?


A FoRB approach to sustainable development demands a thorough engagement with non-discrimination. This implies, of course, the freedom from discrimination in respect of one’s religion or belief. Freedom of religion or belief, however, is a human right and therefore interdependent and inter-related to all other human rights. It cannot be perceived as being in conflict, for example, with the broader aims of gender equity and justice. While the internal structures and administration of religious or belief communities must be respected, a FoRB approach to development has also at its core a gender rights approach to development, and therefore must not contribute to furthering stereotypes or discrimination based on gender.

The Rule of Law

Finally, all of the above must be underpinned by an effective recognition of freedom of religion or belief in the legal system. While it may be often thought of as such, law is not separate from development. The project of ‘leaving no-one behind’ in any given State cannot be achieved unless the inherent dignity of each individual and their communities irrespective of their religion or belief is clearly stated and represents the lived reality of their engagement with State and non-State actors alike.

The realignment of the constitutional and legal orders is often a key aspect, for example, of the transition from conflict to peace. Processes which take serious aim at this must consider the structural forms of marginalisation based on religion or belief which may have proven to be drivers of conflict, and how they can be addressed in the legal order.

The Forum this year centres the importance of collaboration among multiple actors as a necessity for effectively addressing current challenges. A human rights framework, and a FoRB framework specifically, offers a tool which helps to make visible and value the great diversity in human thought, religion, and belief. It helps us to problematise the relationship between difference and disadvantage, and encourages us to broaden our net of contacts and collaborators based on a shared value of human dignity.

Of course, time considerations limit my ability to enter into these issues in detail, but I leave them with you as food for thought as you consider your collaborative approach to the serious challenges facing the sustainable development agenda.

The partnership’s inclusion of this Workstream on Freedom of Religion or Belief would do well to also consider the importance of thorough engagement with FoRB principles for the success of the other workstreams such as they relate to sustaining peace, climate action, health, gender and other such arenas.

Thank you again for the kind invitation to share these thoughts with you. I look forward to continuing our collaboration and in the meantime wish you every success for the Forum.