Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs,
Defence and Trade
Australia's Efforts to Promote and Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief
Freedom of Religion and Belief: Issues Arising
The respect for humanity and sense of ethics that underpin human rights are often said to derive from religious belief. Certainly, the major religions of the world emphasise our common humanity and the dignity and equality of individuals. While respect for fellow human beingsthe foundation of toleranceis a principle of the world's major religions, and most states proclaim their respect for religious differences, there is evidence of persistent and increasing religious intolerance. This appears to coincide with increasing religious revival.
In the United States there have been formal responses to concerns about violations of religious freedom around the world: the Secretary of State has established an Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and an Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad.1 Complementing this, the US International Religious Freedom Act provides for a variety of formal responses by the President to abuses of religious freedom in other countries (including economic sanctions but not affecting the provision of food, medicine, and humanitarian aid). In addition, from 1999, the Department of State will publish country reports evaluating religious freedom around the world.2
Protection of the freedom
While there is strong evidence of intolerance directed towards some people who hold particular religious beliefs (occasionally by those who claim a superior religious belief), the universal and fundamental nature of the right to freedom of religion and belief is clear. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides:
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.
This protection is supported by article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which came into force in 1976. Article 18 of the ICCPR provides:
- 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.
- No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
- 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.
- 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.
Detailed guidelines for protecting of freedom of religion and belief are provided in the 1981 resolution of the UN General Assembly: the Declaration
on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief.3 This declaration prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion or belief and requires states to take measures to prevent and eliminate such discrimination.4 While there is no provision to monitor implementation, scrutiny of religious intolerance by the UN is carried out through special rapporteurs.
Extent of the freedom
It will be necessary to consider not just the protective framework offered at international law, but more precisely what it is that is protected. The UN Human Rights Committee has considered the extent of the freedom referred to in Article 18 of the ICCPR:
The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18(1) is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thoughts on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or beliefs, whether manifested individually or in community with others. ... Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.5
Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission recently reported on freedom of religion and belief in Australia.6 While HREOC's focus was on Australia, as opposed to this Committee's focus beyond Australia, the report is helpful in many respects for the Committee's inquiry. The meaning of 'religion and belief' in a proposed Religious Freedom Act was the basis of one recommendation by HREOC. The recommendation stated, among other things:
Religion or belief should be defined as a particular collection of ideas and/or practices
The definition should not apply to all beliefs but only to those that clearly involve issues of personal conviction, conscience or faith. This definition would not cover beliefs which are caused by mental illness or which are motivated by criminal intent.7
- that relate to the nature and place of humanity in the universe and, where applicable, the relation of humanity to things supernatural
- that encourage or require adherents to observe particular standards or codes of conduct or, where applicable, to participate in specific practices having supernatural significance
- that are held by an identifiable group regardless of how loosely knit and varying in belief and practice
- that are seen by adherents as constituting a religion or system of belief.
Sources of intolerance
Despite almost universal acceptance of the legitimacy of freedom of religion and belief, abuses of this freedom are also almost universal. The underlying reasons for such abuses vary. They may not be simply the products of extremism or inappropriately fervent belief. A group's religious affiliation may also signify its place in a particular political or ethnic group so that the hostile behaviour it experiences (or offers) may have a more complex background than religious intolerance. For instance, foreign and immigrant groups which bring new religions to a state or community may be targeted as much for their challenge to the status quo as for their religion. Legislation that is directed ostensibly towards protecting a community from cults may provide an opportunity to bolster state control of religion and to harass individuals and groups for their beliefs rather than any illegal acts.
Religious intolerance can be used and manipulated to mask cultural and political tensions and it may be manifested in a multitude of ways. Importantly, denial of religious freedom can be the precursor of denials of other human freedoms, as it gives rise to fear, reprisals, and instability.
Each religion has a tendency to consider that it is the sole guardian of truth and is duty bound to behave accordingly What is more, each religion may be tempted to fight against whatever it defines as deviant either within its own faith or at its boundaries Moreover, crimes committed under the mantle of religious freedomespecially those perpetrated by or ascribed to groups bedecked with religiosityinevitably provoke extreme reactions, resulting in greater intolerance and discrimination towards anything which does not belong to the established order.8
Nature of intolerance
Abuses may range from subtle bureaucratic interference and restrictions (for example, registration requirements) to more direct and violent persecution. They may be against religion or in the name of religion and may be found around the world. The US Department of State's most recent human rights report9 contains many such examples. Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance has published reports of widespread and varying levels of violations.10 After analysing communications regarding intolerance from the perspective of the 1981 Declaration, the Special Rapporteur described seven categories of violation:
- Violations of the principle of non-discrimination in matters of religion and beliefthe characteristics of which are policies, laws and regulations, discriminatory practices and acts against certain communities (regarding religion and belief) and against women, based on interpretations of religion and traditions supposedly based on religion or belief
- Violations of the principle of tolerance in matters of religion and beliefsuch as policies, practices and acts of religious intolerance on the part of the State and Society in matters relating to religion and belief, the most marked manifestations being connected with religious extremism
- Violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or beliefpolicies, laws and regulations, practices and acts contrary to conscientious objection and to the individual's freedom to change and to keep his or her religion and belief
- Violations of the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief
- Violations of the freedom to dispose of religious property
- Violations of physical integrity and health of persons (religious figures and the faithful) and
- Violations affecting women.11
Violations may be committed by governments and by individuals who follow other faiths or even a different branch of the same faith. In January 1999, an Australian Christian missionary and his sons were murdered in India, allegedly by extremist Hindus who claimed to be protesting forced conversions to Christianity. In Afghanistan under the Taliban's interpretation of Islam, abuses of human rights, particularly against women, are notorious. This treatment of women was described by the Special Rapporteur as 'tantamount to veritable apartheid against women, as women, and on the basis of specious interpretations of Islam.'12
In 1998, some examples of violations of freedom of religion or belief were those reported in:
- Indonesia between Muslims and Christians
- China against Protestants, Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists and Muslims
- Sudan against Christians and animists
- Egypt against Coptic Christians
- Iran against Christian, Jewish and Baha'i minorities
- India between Hindus and Muslims and against Christians
- Vietnam against organised activities of religious organisations not sanctioned by the state
- Pakistan between Shia and Sunni, and against Ahmadi Muslims and Christians and
- Russia against 'foreign' and less established religions.
Implications of intolerance and measures for improvement
While there are reasonably extensive and current reports of the extent and nature of religious intolerance, issues flowing from these occurrences would benefit from further considerationa better understanding of the beginnings of religious intolerance should enable a better understanding of ways of ending it. To this end, consideration will need to be given to:
- the implications of violations. For example, to what extent do they
accompany and encourage violations of other human rights? A government
that tolerates abuse of religious minorities may also be signalling
its failure to protect general minority rights, and restrictions on
religious belief may be followed by restrictions on expression, association
and movement. Also, what can be learned from assessing the source of
violations, that is, who and what really inspire these acts; and
- what practical role may there be for Australia in promoting and protecting
religious freedom? While the United States' broad-ranging style of response
may not be appropriate for a smaller nation such as Australia, other
kinds of responses by the Australian government and by non-government
organisations could contribute to respect for freedom of religion and
belief. Allied to the possibilities for government and community in
fostering freedom of religion and belief are possibilities for religious
and spiritual leaders and groups to promote religious and other freedoms.
While religious differences may be instrumental in beginning some conflicts,
religion may also bring about an end to some conflictsis there a greater
role for religious and spiritual leaders to play in resolving conflict
and in promoting the basic freedoms? 1. The
Advisory Committee published an Interim Report to the Secretary of
State and to the President of the United States in January 1998;
access is at http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/.
2. Country Reports on Human Rights
Practices for 1998, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,
US Department of State, February 1999, p.7. See http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/1998_hrp_report/.
3. Resolution 36/55. A copy of the Resolution
follows at p.19 of this booklet.
4. Articles 1 and 4 respectively. Article
6 contains a list of the freedoms included in the right to freedom of
thought, conscience, religion or belief, for example, to worship, to
train and appoint leaders, and to teach a religion or belief.
5. General Comment No. 22 [ICCPR Article
18], Human Rights Committee, Forty-Eighth Session, 20July1993.
6. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
Commission, Article 18 Freedom of religion and belief, 1998.
7. Ibid, p. 24.
8. Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur
on Religious Intolerance of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights,
in Freedom of Religion and Belief. A World Report, edited by
Kevin Boyle and Juliet Sheen, Routledge, London and New York, 1997,
9. Country Reports on Human Rights
Practices for 1998, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,
US Department of State, February 1999.
10. Report submitted by Mr Abdelfattah
Amor, Special Rapporteur, in accordance with Commission on Human Rights
resolution 1998/18, 11 January 1999, E/CN.4/1999/58; http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocd/
11. Ibid, paragraphs 104-112.
12. Ibid, paragraph 111.