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Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Bill of Human Rights

The struggle for religious freedom has been ongoing for thousands of years. However, the creation of legal international human rights obligations to define and protect this right did not occur until adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Universal Declaration”), which declares in Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

The Universal Declaration was created in response to the horrors of the Holocaust in World War II. Prior to the Holocaust, many argued that human rights were a domestic concern, to be supervised and enforced by the government within each country. This view evolved as the world learned of the scope of the atrocities, leading to a movement for internationally protected human rights that were universal and inalienable.

The importance of religious freedom as a core human right was embraced by the global community in the Universal Declaration. In the very first sentence of its preamble, the Universal Declaration states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” It is this recognition of the inherent dignity of humanity that has become the driving force for the protection and promotion of religious freedom and all human rights.

In 1966, the United Nations (UN) passed a legally enforceable treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Covenant), which expanded on the scope of the right to freedom of religion or belief and provided the Human Rights Committee (a body of independent human rights experts) with the power to monitor implementation of the Covenant. This treaty came into force in 1976. The Covenant, along with the Universal Declaration and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), form the International Bill of Human Rights.

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1981, is designed to articulate 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.

A Universal Human Right

Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right of every human being. It is a universal human right that applies to all persons equally everywhere, regardless of who they are, where they live, their age, gender, race or ethnicity, and what they believe or do not believe in. [3]

Freedom of religion or belief is a wide-ranging bundle of rights covering a broad spectrum of distinct yet interconnected issues. The right to freedom of religion or belief encompasses freedom of conscience and the commitment to religion or belief on all matters. [4] It is not a privilege provided by a government, but an individual’s birthright. As memorialized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “all are endowed with dignity and conscience.”

The right to freedom of religion or belief is intrinsically and inextricably intertwined with other fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of association, and the universal principles of non-discrimination and equality for all.

Freedom of religion or belief benefits everyone. It is a means, through faith-based actions, to achieve democratization, plurality and security; freedom of religion also reduces poverty through economic and social development. It is at the heart of democratic principles that contribute to a free and open society, morality, transparency, the rule of law, ethical treatment of others, peace and promotion of other human rights.

In contrast, restrictions on the right to freedom of religion contribute to polarization and discrimination between communities, undermine democratization and security, and encourage extremist groups.

Rising Tide of Global Assault

Today the right to freedom of religion or belief is under assault throughout the world. A recent global study by the Pew Research Center focused on 197 countries and territories comprising 99.5 percent of the world’s population. It finds that approximately five billion people, 75 percent of the world’s population, live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, which often target religious minorities.

Alarmingly these severe restrictions against freedom of religion have increased throughout the world. The report provides substantial evidence that a rising level of restrictions on freedom of religion occurred in each of the five major regions of the world. [5]

Far–reaching and Profound

The right to freedom of religion or belief is far-reaching and profound. It is a fundamental freedom that encompasses all religions and beliefs. It protects theistic and non-theistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion. [6]

As the UN Human Rights Committee noted in its definitive interpretation of the right to religious freedom under the UN Bill of Rights, the terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. They are not limited to traditional religions, or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The right to freedom of belief encompasses newly established religions and religious minorities that may be subject to hostility by a predominant religious community. [7]

A common definitional mistake is to require that a belief in God be necessary for something to be considered a religion. The most obvious counterexamples are classical Buddhism, which is not theistic, and Hinduism, which is polytheistic. Such a narrow definition contravenes fundamental human rights. [8]

Absolute and Unconditional Right of Belief

An individual has an absolute and unconditional right to hold any religion or belief. Beliefs may not be limited under any circumstances. [9]

International human rights law does not permit any limitations whatsoever on the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice. This freedom is protected unconditionally, as is the right of everyone to hold opinions without interference. Consistent with these rights, no one may be compelled to reveal adherence to a religion or belief. Likewise no one may be required to declare non-adherence to religious beliefs to obtain employment or other social or economic benefits. [10]

Two Dimensions

There are two dimensions to religious freedom. It includes the right of individuals and the right of religious communities to practice or manifest their religion, in public or in private, through “worship, observance, practice and teaching.” [11]

The first dimension covers the rights of individuals to freely manifest their religion or belief. The second dimension covers the rights of religious groups representing a community of fellow believers to manifest their religion through religious rites and community practices and to structure their internal religious affairs through legal entities and institutions.

[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 18; European Union Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief, ¶ 16.

[4] United Nations Human Rights Committee General Comment 22, ¶ 1.

[5] “Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion,” September 2012, Pew Research Center.

[6] United Nations Human Rights Committee General Comment 22, ¶ 1.

[7] Ibid., ¶ 2.

[8] Guidelines for Review of Legislation Pertaining to Religion or Belief, Prepared by the OSCE/ODIHR Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion in Consultation with the Venice Commission.

[9] European Union Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief, ¶ 12.

[10] United Nations Human Rights Committee General Comment 22, ¶ 3.

[11] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 18; European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9.

X. Rights of Parents and Children
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