The importance of freedom of religious or belief (FoRB) protections, as expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is not widely understood outside academic and legal circles. There are a sizeable number of organisations endeavouring to change this, but for Article 18  to be fully understood, it must be reinterpreted and reaffirmed in every generation across all societies.

The Universal Declaration, with its Article 18 provision for FoRB, goes back to the document’s drafting in 1948, as a strong statement for FoRB in the post-Holocaust and post-World War II world.  Article 18 states:

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 commitment to FoRB, while not uncontroversial at the time of the UDHR, laid the foundation for FoRB rights in international law in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Language nearly identical to Article 18 of the UDHR was adopted as the first portion of a more elaborate guarantee of FoRB, reaffirmed in 1966 in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which stated:

  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.

To the original freedoms to have and to manifest FoRB contained in UDHR Article 18, the ICCPR Article 18 thus added protections from coercion, the possibility of limitations in instances where FoRB might conflict with the rights of others, and a provision on the liberty of parents to educate their children in religious matters.

Article 18, in both the UDHR and ICCPR formulations, affords wide-ranging protections to ‘freedom of thought, conscience, and religion’. They thus protect not only religion, but a range of other beliefs, as well as the right not to subscribe to religious beliefs at all. Article 18 includes not only private belief, worship and practice, but also the public expression of belief in civil society and the public sphere. This public dimension of Article 18 inextricably links FoRB rights to related rights of speech, expression, assembly, association and education. These many dimensions of FoRB received further expression in the U.N. General Assembly’s 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. This ‘Religion Declaration’ is the highest-level U.N. statement specifically on FoRB. Article 18 is increasingly seen as not only a right of individuals, but also a collective right of religious communities and religious groups, particularly since the General Assembly’s 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which has come to be seen as a strong statement of rights on the basis of group identity, alongside the many guarantees of individual human rights in international law.

When understood as ‘religious freedom’ or ‘freedom of religion’, FoRB can give the impression of being about ‘religious rights’ or ‘rights for the religious’. Article 18 has been broadly conceived as including a range of religious and non-religious beliefs. It is, indeed, the case in religiously pluralistic societies that differing beliefs can lead to conflict, discrimination and even outright religious persecution by and among religious groups. But the world’s religions are not only powerful sources of human rights in and of themselves, they also bring resources for transforming conflict and securing peace and social development.

Different societies, at times, may be at different places when it comes to freedom of religion or belief. Nowadays, international human rights doctrine affords what is known as a ‘margin of appreciation’- deference to national context and other factors - when it comes to recognising the efforts that nations make toward human rights realisation.  This can vary from society to society. Societies may also differ in their understanding of the relation between FoRB and other rights to speech, expression, and relations between social groups in pluralistic societies. We will be addressing some of these interrelations in subsequent posts.