Australia's Efforts to Promote and Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief

Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

Australia's Efforts to Promote and Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief

Issues paper

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:

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:

  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.

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:

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:

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.

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. Violations of the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief
  5. Violations of the freedom to dispose of religious property
  6. Violations of physical integrity and health of persons (religious figures and the faithful) and
  7. 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:

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: