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Decision in case 1553/2019/NH on the role of the EU’s Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside of the EU

Thursday | 30 July 2020

The case concerned the role and mandate of the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside of the EU. The Special Envoy served as a special adviser to the Commission between 2016 and 2019. The complainant, an MEP, was concerned about the Special Envoy’s interactions with certain organisations which she argued pursue an “anti-human rights agenda”. The Ombudsman opened an inquiry into how the Commission monitored the role of the Special Envoy.

The Ombudsman found that the mandate of the Special Envoy, as a unique function in the EU administration, was not sufficiently clear. Moreover, the documents setting out this mandate and the Special Envoy’s work plan were not available to the public. The Special Envoy was mandated however, to engage in dialogue with civil society organisations. The Commission assessed that the Special Envoy did not breach this mandate by engaging with the organisations mentioned in the complaint. The Ombudsman however has judged that greater attention should have been paid to the risk from the perception of this highly sensitive post being exploited given the clashes that can emerge between freedom of religion and belief and other fundamental rights and freedoms.

Given the shortcomings identified, the Ombudsman closed the inquiry with three suggestions for improvement. She invited the Commission to give clearer guidance to future Special Envoys about the need to take into account the full range of human rights when making statements and interacting with stakeholders. She further suggested that the Commission clarify the extent to which future Special Envoys have the mandate to speak on behalf of the Commission and invited the Commission to make their mandate and work plan publicly available.