United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After more than thirty years of failed attempts, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a declaration on freedom of religion and belief in 1981.

Summary of Event

Prior to World War II, abuse of an individual’s human rights was not a matter of international law, unless the victim was the citizen of a state other than the one in which the abuse took place. Even then, the dignity and material interest of the victim’s state, and not of the victim, were deemed worthy of protection. There was no direct means of protection for the individual’s dignity and interest beyond the borders of his or her own nation. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, U.N. (1981) Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Religious freedom;U.N. declaration [kw]United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief (Nov. 25, 1981) [kw]Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief, United Nations (Nov. 25, 1981) [kw]Freedom of Religion and Belief, United Nations Votes to Protect (Nov. 25, 1981) [kw]Religion and Belief, United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of (Nov. 25, 1981) [kw]Belief, United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and (Nov. 25, 1981) Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, U.N. (1981) Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Religious freedom;U.N. declaration [g]North America;Nov. 25, 1981: United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief[04720] [g]United States;Nov. 25, 1981: United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief[04720] [c]United Nations;Nov. 25, 1981: United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief[04720] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 25, 1981: United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief[04720] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Nov. 25, 1981: United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief[04720] Krishnaswami, Arcot D’Almeida Ribeiro, Angelo Boven, Theo C. van

A significant change in this arrangement occurred during the closing days of World War II. When the victorious Allies decided to prosecute Nazi leaders not only for the massacre of people in occupied territories but also for the slaughter of German citizens, the modern concept of human rights was born. The Nuremberg Trials and the U.N. General Assembly declaration affirming the legitimacy of the principles supporting the trials’ judgments implied that all sovereigns could be expected to observe a core of obligations concerning the treatment of their own citizens.

The United Nations was destined to be the workshop for the formation of human rights policy. The missions set forth in its charter included the promotion of respect for human rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. Further, member states pledged to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the United Nations for the achievement of universal respect for, and observance of, human rights.

Despite the charter and the pledge, early support for human rights was not strong. John Humphrey, the first director of the Division of Human Rights at the United Nations, reported that human rights would have received only a passing reference had it not been for the efforts of a few deeply committed delegates and the representatives of some forty-two private organizations brought in as consultants by the United States. This, however, changed over time.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. (1948) For the first time in history, the nations of the world committed themselves, by means of a constitutional document of the world community, to human rights provisions as binding on nations with the force of positive international law.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, it was agreed that every right in the Universal Declaration would be the basis for a separate declaration and, eventually, a separate convention or treaty. In 1959, the United Nations Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, under the direction of Arcot Krishnaswami, the special rapporteur of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, drafted a document for a proposed code on religious liberty, but no declaration emerged for more than twenty years.

Finally, in March of 1981, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights completed the Draft Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. After approval by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations, the declaration was adopted by the General Assembly on November 25, 1981.

The more than thirty years of failure to adopt a declaration on religious liberty should not have come as a surprise. Although religious liberty had been advocated as early as the second century by Saint Justin Martyr and many other subsequent writers and thinkers, including Marsilius of Padua in the fourteenth century and by the free churches of the Radical Reformation, it was not legally guaranteed until the modern era. Even in the twentieth century, it was seriously abridged throughout most of the world.

The legal status of religious liberty was aided primarily by international relations that resulted in the ratification of treaties between states. In the nineteenth century, with sovereign states identified with different religious traditions, it became common in the drafting of treaties to include provisions granting the right of religious expression to the nationals of each contracting party in the territory of the other. Specific safeguards were provided for freedom of conscience, worship, and religious work “upon the same terms as nationals of the state of residence,” to use a phrase common to many international treaties with provisions on religious liberty. The American treaty with Japan in 1858, the Treaty of San Stefano at the close of the Russo-Turkish War in 1878, the General Act Relating to African Possessions signed at Berlin in 1885, and the minorities treaties of 1919-1923 all provided guarantees of religious liberty.

Meanwhile, the major world religions were showing an increasingly wide geographic distribution of individual adherents and communities. To take Christianity as just one example, its expansion was the occasion for churches to be formed in most of the world as voluntary associations of religious minorities. Religions that were gaining worldwide distribution challenged those nations that were built on the idea of a single religious tradition or a particular church with policies denying or limiting the rights of members of other religious communities.

There is overwhelming evidence that basic guarantees of religious liberty remained far from being realized in much of the world, and perhaps religious liberty was nowhere fully realized. The principle of religious liberty has become, however, an almost universally recognized commitment.

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief is a short document with eight articles. It states that no one should be subject to discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, that such discrimination should be condemned as a human rights violation, that states should act to prevent and eliminate such discrimination, and that the parents or legal guardians of a child have the right to organize life within the family in accordance with their religion or belief. Although religious liberty was deemed to be better protected by underspecification than by overspecification, the declaration does enumerate nine freedoms. Article 6 describes the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief.

Significance

The need for a document such as the declaration was clear. In 1986, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights entrusted a special rapporteur, Angelo d’Almeida Ribeiro, with the task of examining incidents of religious intolerance and discrimination, reporting on compliance with the standards stated in the declaration, and recommending remedial measures. Following a review of Ribeiro’s first report, which revealed the frequency and gravity of violations of religious freedom, the commission extended his mandate. The special rapporteur’s second and third reports, submitted in January and December of 1988, respectively, focused on the role of governments in violations of the declaration.

Prior to the completion of his second report, Ribeiro informed the governments of Albania, Bulgaria, Burundi, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Soviet Union of specific allegations that he had received, charging each of these governments with some violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. The allegations ranged from the almost total suppression of religious rights in Albania to the persecution of certain minorities such as the Turkish Muslims in Bulgaria, the Baha’is in Iran, or the Christians in Turkey. Ribeiro requested from each of these governments information regarding its alleged violation. Replies were received from Bulgaria, Turkey, the Soviet Union, and Burundi. The governments that replied denied the allegations, with the exception of the government of Burundi, which admitted that there had been violations but maintained that a policy of religious freedom was currently in force in that nation. The Bulgarian government invited Ribeiro to visit its country, and Ribeiro accepted the invitation. As a result of this visit, Ribeiro concluded that the problems faced by the Muslim community in Bulgaria were only part of a multipronged crisis in Bulgarian-Turkish relations.

Ribeiro’s third report addressed twenty-three allegations of government infringement on religious rights. The government of China was accused of the destruction of Buddhist temples in Tibet, of the imprisonment and killing of Tibetan Buddhist monks, and of a refusal to allow Buddhist teaching. The government of Ireland was accused of preferential treatment for Roman Catholics, especially in the education and health sectors, while the government of Czechoslovakia was accused of imprisoning Catholics who celebrated mass or distributed religious literature. The United States was accused of restricting the practice of indigenous religion. This allegation was the result of the April, 1988, Supreme Court decision in the case of Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association (1988) which allowed the building of a logging road close to a traditional Native American sacred place. Ribeiro concluded that the broad geographic distribution of the allegations of violations he had received highlighted the nearly universal nature of the problem of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.

Theo C. van Boven, moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, expressed concern that the set of freedoms protected by the United Nations declaration might not be sufficiently broad. According to van Boven, even in countries in which the majority of citizens freely professed religious beliefs, religious liberty often did not extend to the political and social aspects of religious practice. Van Boven pointed to cases of priests, pastors, and laypersons who were persecuted, arrested, tortured, expelled, or even killed while advocating the cause of the oppressed as part of their Christian beliefs. In some of these situations, the ruling powers supported the Church as a protector of the status quo but took action against men and women of the Church who voiced criticism of unjust conditions.

Despite all the efforts to promote religious liberty, the twentieth century proved to be a period of religious intolerance and persecution, even after the promulgation of human rights instruments designed to promote religious freedom. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, U.N. (1981) Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Religious freedom;U.N. declaration

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farer, Tom J. “The United Nations and Human Rights: More Than a Whimper, Less Than a Roar.” Human Rights Quarterly 9 (November, 1987): 550-586. Discusses the origin and the execution of the United Nations’ attempt to write an international bill of rights. Very helpful for its explanation of the machinery of the United Nations. This article deals with human rights in general, not with religious rights in particular.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Deskbook. Leiden, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 2004. An enormous resource, this anthology includes writings by fifty experts addressing a range of topics in the field. Appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sullivan, Donna J. “Advancing the Freedom of Religion or Belief Through the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Religious Intolerance and Discrimination.” American Journal of International Law 8 (July, 1988): 487-520. This article is concerned with the implementation of the declaration. It discusses areas in which conflict with other human rights is likely to occur and suggests means for resolution of those conflicts. It also identifies problem areas that would need to be addressed if a means for implementation were to be devised.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. “Declaration Against Religious Intolerance.” Yearbook of the United Nations 35 (1981): 879-883. The United Nations yearbook for 1981 describes the history of the declaration and the debate over some of the issues. It includes a copy of the draft of the declaration as well as the final version of the document.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, 44th Session. Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief: Report of Special Rapporteur Angelo Vidal d’Almeida Ribeiro. New York: Author, 1988. Includes the correspondence between governments alleged to be in violation of religious rights and Special Rapporteur Ribeiro. Valuable for its enumeration of specific alleged violations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, 45th Session. Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief: Report of Special Rapporteur Angelo Vidal d’Almeida Ribeiro. New York: Author, 1988. Enumerates numerous instances of alleged violations of religious rights by governments from all parts of the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Boven, Theo C. “Religious Liberty in the Context of Human Rights.” The Ecumenical Review 37 (July, 1985): 345-355. The author provides a history of the development of religious liberty as a fundamental human right. He faults the United Nations declaration for a lack of attention to the political and social aspects of religious practice. The author was the moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Commission of the Churches on International Affairs at the time of writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, James E., Jr. “The Proposed United Nations Declaration on Religious Liberty.” Journal of Church and State 413 (Autumn, 1981): 413-422. Provides a history of the evolution of the concept of religious liberty in the Western world, a copy of the draft of the declaration, and a history of the United Nations’ consideration of the right of religious liberty.

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