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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Unrealized Ideal: 40 Years After a Seminal Declaration on Religious Freedom

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

Four decades later, almost two-thirds of humanity live in countries with restrictions on the practice of faith.

Anniversaries serve as natural inflection points, opportunities for introspection, to take stock and to consider where to go next. November 25 marked the 40th anniversary of the 1981 U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Despite its unwieldy name, the aim was simple: to promote freedom of religion or belief and condemn discrimination based on faith. The 1981 Declaration was a culmination of almost four decades of U.N. efforts to develop international legal protections for freedom of belief to defend minorities from persecution. Forty years later, however, almost two-thirds of humanity live in countries with restrictions on the practice of faith.

First Phases

Efforts to establish internationally recognized protections for religious freedom came in three phases. The first originated with the founding of the current international rights-based system and the establishment of the United Nations. Coming after the horrors of World War II, founding nations centered the core principles of the new organization on concepts of dignity, justice and equality.

The declarations and treaties that followed reordered the relationship between government and the governed, placing individuals as rights holders and governments as obligated to protect those freedoms. After the U.N. was established in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt led a multinational and multicultural effort to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration expanded upon the U.N. Charter’s emphasis on human rights and dignity. Unanimously passed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, the Universal Declaration established that individuals — regardless of race, gender, politics or faith — should be free from harm and free to live out their lives however they wish.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration comprehensively defined freedom of religion or belief, enumerating a multifaceted and robust right that protects an individual’s conscience from government interference or punishment, while recognizing the rights of communities of believers to meet for worship and education. Often overlooked, Article 2 was also essential in preventing religious discrimination, noting that none of the rights and freedoms set forth could be limited on account of religion or other grounds.

The passage of the Universal Declaration was a momentous occasion in world history and launched the second phase focused on elevating political commitments into treaty obligations for U.N. member states. The Universal Declaration, although of immense moral power, was nonbinding. The passage of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) looked to convert the Universal Declaration into treaty law, mirroring the Universal Declaration in many respects, including having an Article 18 specifically focused on religious freedom that expanded and further defined the right. The ICCPR also grappled with issues of discrimination, declaring everyone is equal before the law and entitled to equal protection regardless of religion or other characteristics. The ICCPR recognized the specific challenges faced by minority communities and included a specific provision on minority rights in Article 27.

The General Assembly did not approve the ICCPR until 1966, and it only entered into force in 1976. But by having governments ratify the treaty, the community of nations agreed upon a framework that defended freedom of religion or belief and protected religious minorities from harm or disenfranchisement. However, the lengthy negotiation process signaled that the early era of unanimity on fundamental freedoms was closing.

The third phase attempted to comprehensively and specifically address discrimination based on religion or belief. An initiative emerging in the 1960s, many hoped a new convention could further enunciate the parameters of freedom of religion or belief and establish firmer guardrails against religious discrimination. Originally envisaged as a binding treaty that collected the various commitments outlined in the Universal Declaration and the ICCPR, the complexities of dealing with religious freedom and minority rights proved too difficult for U.N. member states.

The result was a non-binding resolution, the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, which built off the preceding documents, reinforcing concepts and expanding others, such as restating Article 18 language from the ICCPR. Regarding discrimination, the 1981 Declaration in Article 2 stated, “No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons, or person on the grounds of religion or other belief.”

It defined “intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief” broadly, referring to “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on religion or belief and having as its purpose or as its effect nullification or impairment of the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis.” It described in Article 3 discrimination between individuals because of religion or belief as “an affront to human dignity,” a “disavowal” of the U.N. Charter, Universal Declaration and ICCPR, as well as an “obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between nations.”

Significantly, Article 4 declared that all countries should take “effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life.”

While drafters aimed high, backers concluded a binding treaty was not politically possible in the General Assembly, with consensus around religious freedom tenuous at best. A close or contested vote could have signaled a lack of willingness toward eliminating religious discrimination. Consequently, the 1981 Declaration was placed before the General Assembly as a non-binding resolution using an approach that avoided an actual vote. Although approved without objection, this process demonstrated the fraught nature of these debates and the fear of reopening these concepts.

A Fourth Phase?

Forty years after the 1981 Declaration’s quiet passage in the General Assembly, its goals remain unrealized. Backers can take solace that the ICCPR provided treaty obligations covering most of the issues addressed in the 1981 Declaration. However, governments continue to discriminate and persecute. Terrorists terrorize. All because of religion or belief. Yet despite these grim realities, a fourth phase of human rights work is emerging due to unprecedented new movements responding to worldwide persecution. These initiatives are moving past establishing new treaties, to focusing on the response of governments and civil society to the abuses witnessed in too many contexts. Instead of issuing statements, more and new groups are taking action.

For many years, there were few specific advocates for religious freedom. In 1985, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief was created, providing the U.N. with a singular voice on the issue, but one without resources and disconnected from any political power. A decade later, the American Congress created a special ambassador-at-large in 1998 to lead U.S. diplomatic efforts to promote international religious freedom and to annually report on its respect worldwide. Since 2010, other governments created special ambassadors or focal points, such as Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, European Union, Mongolia, Netherlands, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Norway, Sweden, Romania, Taiwan and others.

With increasing diplomatic action, Canada launched — with U.S. support — the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief to coordinate government actions in joint advocacy. It was groundbreaking, as never before had countries worked cooperatively to promote religious freedom abroad and share information and resources. From that early work followed three ministerial-level events focused on advancing religious freedom, with a fourth announced for 2022. To elevate efforts among the most committed countries, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance further accelerated cooperation. The launch of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief in Oslo in 2014 networked parliamentarians committed to religious freedom coming from different political, geographic and religious backgrounds.

Running parallel with new government focal points was the emergence of new civil society networks. Over the past 15 years, groups have spawned around the world focused on religious freedom for all. While advocating for fellow believers is natural and positive, the new movement focused on the right for everyone. More recently, religious communities have begun coming together across deep theological divides to speak up for the persecuted religious “other.”

What’s Next?

Working together, governments, civil society and religious leaders can create a virtuous cycle pressing for top-down and bottom-up reforms that realize religious freedom for all. But, to quote Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” New efforts are reaching a crescendo while persecution continues to run rampant. In diplomacy, the tendency to denounce violations is often interpreted as addressing a problem. However, to make a lasting difference, efforts to advance freedom of religion or belief must result in meaningful action; otherwise, the promises of the international human rights order will ring hollow.

The need for action is clear. Forerunners fighting against discrimination and for human rights have shown the way. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men conspire to preserve an unjust status quo, good men must unite to bring about the birth of a society undergirded by justice.” He added, “Structures of evil do not crumble by passive waiting. If history teaches anything, it is that evil is recalcitrant and determined. Evil must be attacked by a counteracting persistence, by the day-to-day assault of the battering rams of justice.”

While the work is slow in the face of immense suffering, advocates must not become overwhelmed. We should do for the one or the few that we’d wish we can do for the many. Mahatma Gandhi said, “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit … You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

The 1981 Declaration established an unrealized ideal. But will persecution and discrimination on account of belief ever end? How rights-respecting governments, religious leaders and civil society respond over the next 40 years will determine the answer to this question.

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