“Without the full and unimpaired right to think and believe freely, the value of rights pales into relative insignificance. One enjoys these other rights precisely in order to be free, and being free means nothing if it does not mean freedom to think and believe and change in your belief from the good to the better and better as the truth progressively reveals itself to you. The right to be free inwardly is the end and justification of all other rights . . . The very essence of freedom is the right to become, not the right to be.”
Charles Malik, Reflections on the Drafting of Article 18 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The twentieth century has seen the codification of common values related to freedom of religion and belief, though this has not been without struggle.
The United Nations recognised the importance of freedom of religion or belief in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically through Article 18 which 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."
However, owing to the complexity around religion and belief, and the political issues involved, Article 18 has not been elaborated and codified in the same way that more detailed treaties have codified prohibitions against torture, discrimination against women, and race discrimination.
Freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is a key human right
Our religious or non-religious beliefs are at the heart of how we think about ourselves; our humanity, the nature of the world, our obligations to others, and our place in a wider community. That means that everyone should have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – including the right to hold or not to hold any religious belief, to change religion or forsake any religion or belief, and to practise or refuse to practise any religion through teaching, worship and observance
Both empirical and anecdotal research shows that Freedom of Religion or Belief is under threat in many parts of the world today. According to The Pew Centre, three quarters of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of government restriction on freedom of religion or belief, or where they face high-level hostility from non-state actors due to their religious affiliations. Religious minorities (and in some cases majorities) in many countries can face harassment, intimidation, discrimination and violence. Some governments or powerful non-state actors have policies aimed at eradicating a religion or belief system from the country or area they control. Several hinder individuals from converting from one religion or belief to another or promote forced conversions, or deny the freedom of followers of certain religions to worship, to teach or publicly express their religion or belief or to display symbols of their religion or belief.