Introducing Thiago Alves Pinto

Dr Thiago Alves Pinto is Director of Studies in Theology and Religious Studies and a Departmental Lecturer in Legal Studies and International Human Rights Law. He has participated in human rights research at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights (University of Oxford) and the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief (University of Oslo), and continues to be associated with both institutes.

He is actively involved with NGOs, Think Tanks, national and international organisations, having worked with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, UNESCO, the International Organization for Migration, the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and Chatham House. He has taught at the University of Oxford, University of Oslo, Federal University of Uberlandia (Brazil), and Bauchi State University (Nigeria).

Tell us about your research.

My main area of research is international human rights law. Human rights can be explored from several perspectives, including political, philosophical, and sociological. I research human rights primarily from a legal perspective.

The primary focus of my research is on how religious issues interact with human rights. My doctorate, for instance, was on the topic of expressions considered offensive to members of religious groups (such as blasphemy or heresy). Controversies such as the Danish Cartoons, Charlie Hebdo, and films mocking Christianity are at the core of this debate.

Since many people are still punished for such expressions, this topic engages several human rights, among others, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial, and the right not to be tortured.  

Is the world becoming more or less tolerant in terms of religious freedom? In other ways as well? 

This is a great question. While I did historical legal research on matters of law and religion, the data I have is limited to make broad assertions on this topic. Also, although some organisations do claim that more people are being persecuted for their beliefs now, this is difficult to prove based on legal cases or reports alone.

More human rights cases could be a result of more awareness of these rights, not necessarily due to a factual increase of violations. Therefore, it is difficult to establish whether the world is becoming more or less tolerant based on the material I have analysed. What I can say with conviction is that throughout history, there were periods of intense persecution and periods of relative religious tolerance.

Cases concerning blasphemy reflect to a certain extent society’s tolerance towards controversial religious expressions. Blasphemy laws are ancient and have been present in many societies throughout history to punish dissenting religious views. In the UK, blasphemy was considered a crime for centuries, but this law stopped being enforced in the early 1900s. In the middle of the last century, blasphemy law was considered dead letter, but it was not abolished. Then, in 1977 a small publication called Gay News brought the issue back to UK courts, and this case went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. After that, several new blasphemy cases were raised in the UK from members of different religious groups who felt offended by books or films.

Blasphemy was abolished in the UK in 2008. Yet, private companies still censor material considered offensive to some religious groups (for example, selected South Park episodes were removed from Amazon and Sky). So the answer is inconclusive; in certain areas there is more tolerance, in others surely less.

One of the reports you’ve authored states that ‘civil society space is shrinking dramatically around the world’ and citing an ‘authoritarian resurgence’ and ‘a ‘third wave of autocratization’. Why is this happening? What role can the private sector play? What about the individual citizen?

In international human rights law, the traditional players are States, individuals, and civil society. States have obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights. Individuals (citizens or not) have human rights. Civil society organisations often support human rights causes and help to protect the rights of individuals. States that do not respect the rule of law tend to suppress civil society, making it more difficult for individuals to claim their rights.

In the report 'The Role of the Private Sector in Protecting Civic Space' (Chatham House 2021) I argued that we need to look beyond these traditional players, such as the private sector, to find a solution to this problem.

Autocratic regimes might temporarily suppress civil society organisations, but they can hardly ignore business pressures. Consequently, the private sector can play an important role in pushing a human rights agenda in countries where they operate.

This report was a summary of several meetings at Chatham House with representatives of multinational companies from different sectors, NGOs, and experts to discuss the role of companies in protecting civil society. Rather surprisingly, in recent years some companies have placed their commitment to a better society above shareholders’ interests. Some companies have even taken steps to protect human rights defenders in authoritarian regimes. While it might be difficult for companies to go against state interests, these same companies can benefit from operating in a country where the rule of law is respected.

Obviously, many businesses do not respect human rights and actually take advantage of autocratic regimes to exploit workers or get cheaper raw materials. However, several companies are perceiving themselves as political actors who can contribute to making society better for everyone. Consequently, we need to engage these actors to support the protection of human rights where they operate.  

‘Freedom of Religion or Belief’ (FoRB) has been described as an ‘orphaned’ right within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How and why has Article 18 foundered, and how have the other articles fared?

The report that I contributed to for the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief asked whether freedom of religion was still an ‘orphaned’ right.

Surprisingly, freedom of religion or belief is a highly misunderstood right. It is a right that extends to everyone: persons with religious, agnostic, or atheistic beliefs – in other words, the right to freedom of religion or belief protects the right of individuals not to profess any belief. The right does not protect religious ideas; it protects persons to live in accordance with their convictions. It is essentially a right to be yourself, in private or in public, alone or in community with others.

Surely, the issue becomes more complicated when there are questions about the limits of freedom of religion or belief, but every human right entails similar discussions. Therefore, freedom of religion or belief is a human right like any other right. It is neither more nor less important than any other human right.

The idea of freedom of religion or belief being an ‘orphaned’ right originated from the fact that the right had been side-lined at international discussions for too long. The right was included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), but for many years (mostly 1950-2000), it was largely neglected in international fora. Once again, this situation is not unique to freedom of religion or belief. For example, several other rights, such as LGBT+ rights and disability rights, took much longer to receive proper recognition. 

Nevertheless, in the past 20 years, freedom of religion or belief has been much more prominent in international discussions. Several scholars have been working in this area, UN Special Rapporteurs and NGOs have promoted the right worldwide, many countries have established Parliamentarian groups to protect this right, and courts have engaged more with the right. So, I guess you could say that freedom of religion or belief has been a neglected child which now receives plenty of attention, but it has never been an ‘orphaned’ right.

What led you to your current career and area of research?

I guess this is a cliche answer, but my main motivation to work with human rights was to help others with my skills. I grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Brazil, surrounded by social inequalities, which I perceived early on while attending state-funded schools. I decided to go to Law School in order to better understand power structures and learn about laws to protect those who need it most.

My first internship was at the Public Defenders’ Office to support poor people to have access to justice. I also volunteered in organisations doing social work with homeless people and street children. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I received a scholarship from the Norwegian Peace Corps and went to Norway for a course in cross-cultural communication and international work.

In Norway, I realised that I could combine my legal skills, my newly acquired cross-cultural skills, and my goal to help others with my skills in human rights. Then I went on to do a master’s in international human rights law in Finland, worked at the UN with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and at the International Organization for Migration.

When I got an offer to do a doctorate in law at Oxford with a leading expert on freedom of religion or belief—Dr Nazila Ghanea—I thought that this would be the best opportunity of my life to learn with the best experts on human rights and pass forward the knowledge to support victims of human rights violations.  

After my doctorate, I got this fantastic opportunity to work at the Department for Continuing Education – a place that enables the transmission of knowledge for people all around the world, so I literally couldn’t ask for a better job in academia.

What are your plans for your area of work in the Department?

I currently have three roles at the Department: Director of Studies in Theology and Religious Studies, Departmental Lecturer in Legal Studies in the Diplomatic Studies Programme, and the International Human Rights Law programme. Given the administrative load, I will mostly supervise students in the next academic year and provide academic support to the Diplomatic Studies and International Human Rights Law Programme. I also intend to publish my doctoral dissertation.

Regarding Theology and Religious Studies, my main work has been to restructure the subject area to better support tutors. The tutors have the challenging task this year of teaching in-person, online, and sometimes hybrid courses. Thus, they need extra support to continue delivering the high-quality courses that the University of Oxford offers to people worldwide. To further improve the diversity of participants, I have also added some interdisciplinary courses related to religion to the range of short and weekly courses offered next year.

I also intend to connect as much as possible these courses, in order to offer a bridge to longer courses for interested students. For example, suppose a student is interested in Islam: in that case, the student could first take a weekend course, then move on to a longer weekly course on the same topic for a more in-depth experience, then perhaps take a course in Arabic at the Department, or explore the other courses in Theology and Religious Studies.

Finally, I want to connect to other departments in Oxford and develop partnerships with other organisations working in this area.

Discover more about Thiago and his research on his academic profile page.

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Published 16 August 2021