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Glossary
Human Rights Bodies, Articles and Instruments Concerning Freedom of Religion

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration represents a milestone in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives from countries from all regions of the world, the Universal Declaration was publicly proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly Resolution 217 A (III)). [44]

Article 18, Universal Declaration

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

The ICCPR is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966 that has been in force since 23 March 1976. The ICCPR commits States to protect political and civil rights of individuals, including the rights to religious freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of association. As of 2013, 167 countries have committed to uphold the ICCPR. [45]

Article 18, ICCPR

Article 18 of the ICCPR states:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

The ICESCR is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966 that has been in force since 3 January 1976. The ICESCR commits States to protect economic, social, and cultural rights of individuals, including labor rights, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living. As of 2013, 160 countries had committed to uphold the ICESCR. [46]

International Bill of Human Rights

Together, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights form the International Bill of Human Rights. The International Bill of Human Rights contains a comprehensive protection of human rights for all. It has been hailed as “a veritable Magna Carta marking mankind’s arrival at a vitally important phase: the conscious acquisition of human dignity and worth.” [47]

UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

The Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 25 November 1981. The Declaration is one of the most important international documents protecting freedom of religion. The Declaration articulates the strong position of the UN against religious discrimination and religious intolerance. It also details the far-ranging rights covered under the ambit of religious freedom through manifesting one’s religious beliefs.

Articles 2 and 3 of the 1981 Declaration reaffirm the ICCPR’s antidiscrimination norms. Paragraph 1 of Article 2 states: “No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons or person on the grounds of religion or other beliefs.”

Articles 1 and 6 provide a comprehensive list of rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. These include the right to (1) “worship or assemble in connection with a religion or belief, and to establish and maintain places for these purposes”; (2) “establish and maintain appropriate charitable or humanitarian institutions”; (3) “make, acquire and use to an adequate extent the necessary articles and materials related to the rites or customs of a religion or belief”; (4) “write, issue and disseminate relevant publications in these areas”; (5) “teach a religion or belief in places suitable for these purposes”; (6) “solicit and receive voluntary financial and other contributions from individuals and institutions”; (7) “observe days of rest and to celebrate holidays and ceremonies in accordance with the precepts of one’s religion or belief”; and (8) “establish and maintain communications with individuals and communities in matters of religion and belief at the national and international levels.” [48]

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

The CRC is a treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989 that has been in force since 2 September 1990. The CRC sets out the religious, civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. The CRC defines child as any human being under the age of eighteen, unless the age of majority is attained earlier under a State’s own domestic legislation. [49]

Article 14, CRC

Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states:

  1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
  2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. [50]

United Nations Human Rights Committee

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (“Human Rights Committee”) is a body composed of eighteen independent experts who are tasked with monitoring State compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right to freedom of religion protected by Article 18 of the ICCPR. State parties are required to routinely provide the Human Rights Committee with reports demonstrating that they are complying with protecting the rights articulated in the ICCPR.

As part of its duties, the Human Rights Committee issues definitive interpretations of the rights articulated in the ICCPR to guide States in meeting their obligation to protect these rights. These definitive interpretations of rights are known as General Comments. The General Comment on the right to Freedom of Religion, issued in 1993, is referred to as General Comment 22. General Comment 22 consists of eleven comprehensive paragraphs that articulate the far-ranging and profound meaning of the right to religious freedom. Paragraph 2 of General Comment 22 states:

Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms “belief” and “religion” are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominant religious community. [51]

UN Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body within the United Nations system tasked with the promotion and protection of human rights throughout the world, addressing human rights violations, including violations of the right to religious freedom, in particular States, and making recommendations and resolutions to defend and protect human rights. It meets at the UN Office at Geneva. The Council is made up of forty-seven United Nations member States that are elected by the UN General Assembly.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and to present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.

The Rapporteur publishes an annual report on religious freedom and also publishes reports on countries that the Rapporteur has officially visited. Pursuant to report E/CN.4/2005/61, the Special Rapporteur undertakes country visits to get an in-depth understanding of specific contexts and practices and to provide constructive feedback to the given country and report to the Council or the General Assembly. [52]

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

The ECHR is an international treaty signed and ratified by the forty-seven States in the Council of Europe to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe, including the right to religious freedom, protected by Article 9, and the right to be free from religious discrimination, protected by Article 14. The Convention was drafted in 1950 and entered into force on 3 September 1953. The Convention established the European Court of Human Rights.

Article 9, ECHR

Article 9 of the ECHR contains the Convention’s key substantive provision on freedom of religion or belief, closely parallels the language of the religious freedom clause of the Universal Declaration and was drafted soon after the Universal Declaration. It also closely parallels the religious freedom language of Article 18 of the ICCPR:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
  2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitation as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. [53]

Article 14, ECHR

Article 14 of the ECHR states:

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status. [54]

Protocol 1, Article 2, ECHR

Protocol 1, Article 2, of the ECHR states:

Right to Education

No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

The European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights is an international Court established in 1959 with jurisdiction over cases from the forty-seven countries that currently comprise the Council of Europe. It rules on applications from individuals or States alleging violations of the civil and political rights detailed in the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to religious freedom, protected by Article 9, and the right to be free from religious discrimination, protected by Article 14. Since 1998 it has sat as a full-time Court and individuals can apply to it directly once they exhaust domestic remedies in their State. The Court is housed in Strasbourg, France, where it monitors respect for the human rights of over 800 million Europeans. [55]

A growing number of cases from the European Court of Human Rights have construed religious freedom issues protected by Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention to mandate a strict duty of neutrality on the part of the State. These cases also prohibit the State from reinterpreting, misinterpreting, assessing or examining religious beliefs or the expression of these beliefs. [56]

European Union Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief

On 24 June 2013, the European Union Council of Ministers adopted new  Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief in EU external action and human rights policy. The guidelines are premised on the principles of religious freedom, equality, non-discrimination and universality. The guidelines reaffirm that each State must ensure that its legal system guarantees freedom of religion and that “effective measures” exist to prevent or sanction any violations. The guidelines state that the EU and its member States should focus on these measures:

  • Fighting against acts of violence on the grounds of religion or belief;
  • Promoting freedom of expression;
  • Promoting respect for diversity and tolerance;
  • Fighting against direct and indirect discrimination; notably by implementing non-discriminatory legislation;
  • Supporting freedom to change or leave one’s religion or belief;
  • Supporting the right to manifest religion or belief;
  • Supporting and protecting human rights defenders including support for individual cases; and
  • Supporting and engaging with civil society, including religious associations, non-confessional and philosophical organizations.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

OSCE is an intergovernmental body composed of of fifty-seven States from Europe, Central Asia and North America. OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization. It addresses a wide range of issues, including religious freedom and human rights.

Numerous OSCE human rights commitments protect and promote religious freedom, articulated in Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act:

VII. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

They will promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development.

Within this framework the participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.

This fundamental commitment has been repeatedly reaffirmed. Beginning with the Madrid meeting in 1983, the participating States indicated that they would “favorably consider applications by religious communities of believers practicing or prepared to practice their faith within the constitutional framework of their States, to be granted the status provided for in their respective countries for religious faiths, institutions and organizations.”[57] This language was reinforced in the Vienna Concluding Document (1989) to indicate that participating States would not only “favorably consider applications” but that they “will ... grant upon their request to communities of believers, practicing or prepared to practice their faith within the constitutional framework of their States, recognition of the status provided for them in their respective countries.”[58]

Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)

The ODIHR of the OSCE is the human rights institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). ODIHR’s work in the area of freedom of religion focuses on assisting participating States and religious communities in protecting and promoting the right to freedom of religion.

ODIHR also is engaged in preventing and responding to intolerance and discrimination based on religious grounds. ODIHR is assisted in its work by a twelve-member Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which serves as an advisory body that highlights religious freedom issues of concern and provides recommendations to assist participating States in meeting OSCE commitments related to religious freedom. The Advisory Panel also reviews proposed legislation on religious matters when invited to do so by OSCE States to ensure that the legislation meets human rights standards.

The Advisory Panel published the book Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief (“Guidelines”). These Guidelines were prepared to assist the panel in detailing religious freedom standards used in reviewing State religion laws and to provide guidelines for States to follow in drafting such legislation. The Guidelines were welcomed by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly at its annual session in July 2004. The Advisory Panel consists of experts from throughout the OSCE region.

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