Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, A/HRC/19/60/Add.1, 26 January 2012: Paraguay
V. MANDATE-RELATED ISSUES
A. General observations on the human rights situation
21. Although the Special Rapporteur generally noticed a strong human rights commitment in the State and society, virtually all interlocutors from Government and civil society agreed that many challenges remain to be addressed. A major problem broadly affecting the situation of human rights in Paraguay seems to be the weakness of implementation mechanisms. Given the enormous social inequalities in such areas as distribution of wealth, access to public or private education, political influence, ethnic and linguistic minority status and gender-related differences, the weak presence and poor capacity of State institutions render certain sectors of the population structurally vulnerable to possible human rights abuses, including in the field of freedom of religion or belief.
This problem seems to be even more pronounced outside the capital, especially in remote areas. A number of interlocutors stated that, in certain remote regions, the State is virtually absent, with the result that human rights guarantees and policies in those areas are rarely effective. This can have serious consequences for, for instance, members of indigenous peoples, but also for other individuals in situations of particular vulnerability, including members of ethnic, religious or sexual minorities, women, children and people living in poverty.
22. While finding broad consensus on many human rights topics and challenges, the Special Rapporteur also became aware of certain politically contentious issues relating to his mandate. Open tensions that came up repeatedly during discussions concerned problems where education met anti-discrimination policies, especially in the field of gender- and sexual orientation-related discrimination. The Pedagogical Regulating Framework (Marco Rector Pedagógico), a Government initiative recently prepared with the involvement of civil society and the support of the United Nations system in Paraguay aiming to provide population sectors at risk, for example young people and pregnant women, with information and education on sexual and reproductive health, had elicited strong opposition from advocates of traditional family values.
The opposition against the initiative apparently received much support from religious groups across different denominations and some Congress members. A similar political controversy, which was also reflected in many discussions held during the country visit, concerned the role of anti-discrimination principles in the school curriculum. In this context, the Special Rapporteur learned that anti- discrimination legislation had been repeatedly shelved as a result of opposition in Congress and in certain religious and conservative groups.
D. Freedom of religion or belief and the school system
42. In discussions about school education, the Special Rapporteur was repeatedly witness to highly emotional exchanges over the Pedagogical Regulating Framework (see paragraph 22 above) initiated by the Government with the purpose of providing, as part of the mandatory school curriculum, information on sexual and reproductive health. Whereas interlocutors from specific Government sectors, civil society organizations, women’s organizations and representatives of sexual minorities strongly supported the initiative, some vocal members of Christian churches and other religious groups mostly expressed reservations or even harsh opposition. Advocates of the Framework put the initiative into the context of the ongoing fight against gender-based discrimination.
Opponents in turn saw it in sharp contradiction to their own religious or moral convictions, and felt that their concerns had not been taken seriously. This bitter controversy led not only to a blockage within Parliament and to divisions in society at large, but also had a negative impact on school life. According to allegations received from civil society, certain religious organizations directly targeted young-age school children in the context of public campaigns by urging them to sign petitions against the Framework. The Special Rapporteur also received credible information about acts of intimidation and harassment by the part of religious groups opposing the Framework, which, in some instances, have been close to physical violence and led to the cancellation of public information meetings about the initiative.
43. The Special Rapporteur does not see himself in a position to make a comprehensive analysis of the complex conflict around the Pedagogical Regulating Framework, nor to give concrete advice on how to act. However, he received the clear impression that communication between the opposing camps had partly broken down, leading to bitterness, mistrust and lack of mutual understanding. In this context, he regards any act of intimidation and harassment as unacceptable, and would like to recall that the Human Rights Council has, on many occasions, advocated for a holistic understanding of human rights, all of which should be seen as mutually reinforcing one another.
This also includes the relationship between freedom of religion or belief and rights to be free from discrimination on grounds like gender or sexual orientation. According to the formulation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, agreed upon at the World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, “all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated”. In addition, with regard to the rights to life, health and education, the Special Rapporteur refers to the relevant recommendations made by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Special Rapporteur on the right to education.
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