Volume 18, Issue 3 / October-December 2006
PRAGUE — Although it was negotiated at the height of the Cold War, a 25-year-old international agreement on freedom of religion or belief remains as relevant today — and perhaps even more so — said speakers at a major United Nations-sanctioned observance here in late November.
Some 350 participants representing more than 60 governments, UN agencies, and various international non-governmental organizations — including the Bahá’í International Community — gathered on 25 November 2006 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.
The commemoration was marked by speeches, workshops, and an end-of-the-conference statement. They echoed a common theme: that the 1981 Declaration remains a critical document for the protection of freedom of religion or belief, especially at a time when religious conflict seems on the rise.
“These days, we live in a globalized world,” said Piet de Klerk, Ambassador-at-Large of the Netherlands on Human Rights. “This means that different cultures, including different faiths, meet each other more frequently and in a more intense manner than during previous periods of time.”
Mr. de Klerk said that although it was initially negotiated at a time when issues of freedom of religion or belief concerned the ideological struggle between Communism and the West, the Declaration is nevertheless today helpful in addressing the challenges posed by global diversity because it is “based on the conviction of many that the freedom of religion or belief itself offers a way forward for fighting intolerance.”
Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said the principles of the Declaration remain “pivotal” in the current “polarized climate.”
“We all need to join our efforts to disseminate the principles contained in the 1981 Declaration among lawmakers, judges and civil servants but also among non-state actors,” said Ms. Jahangir. “We need to eliminate the root causes of intolerance and discrimination and to remain vigilant with regard to freedom of religion or belief worldwide.”
Felice Gaer, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, also said the Declaration has become more important over time.
“The right of everyone to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is universal, as the unanimous adoption of the Declaration on Religious Intolerance showed — even in 1981,” said Ms. Gaer. “Regrettably, violations of this universal right continue to be committed across the globe.
“The occasion of the 25th anniversary is a call to all governments to intensify their efforts to protect freedom of religion or belief at home and to advance respect for religious freedom abroad. The ability of people throughout the world to live in peace and freedom depends on it.”
Other speakers included Diane Ala’i, the Bahá’í International Community’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, who presented at a workshop on the right to change one’s religion, along with Ms. Jahangir.
In that workshop, Ms. Jahangir noted that although the Declaration does not specifically mention the word “change,” it is clearly implied in an article that says everyone has the “freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.” As well, Ms. Jahangir said, other UN treaties and statements have clearly upheld this right.
Ms. Ala’i said upholding the right to change one’s religion is of “practical importance” overall in the regime of religious freedom, in that the denial of such a right also essentially denies all of the other rights guaranteed in the Declaration, as well as rights guaranteed in other international treaties, such as the right to freedom of association, the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and minority rights.
Yet the right to change one’s religions is not always upheld, said Ms. Ala’i, because some governments today want “to preserve the popularity stemming from a particular state-religion relationship” and so they restrict the right to change one’s religion through particular laws and policies.
This is of critical importance, said Ms. Ala’i, because there are some countries where the right to change one’s religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death under some interpretations of religious law.
Ms. Ala’i pointed specifically to the situation of the Bahá’í communities of Iran and Egypt, which currently face persecution and discrimination over religious belief, and where Bahá’ís have indeed been labelled as apostates, a “crime” which is punishable by death in Iran.
“People are known and respected for risking imprisonment, torture and even death because they uphold a certain political ideology, however, this is not yet fully recognized when it comes to a religious belief,” said Ms. Ala’i.
Other workshops at the commemoration considered issues relating to freedom of religion versus freedom of expression, how freedom of religion relates to the religious community as a whole, and freedom of religion in the context of the propagation of religion.
A final statement, titled the “Prague Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief,” was announced by the gathering. “We consider it essential for governments and international organizations, such as the UN and various regional organizations, to give priority to the protection of the freedom of religion or belief and to the eradication of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief,” said the Prague Declaration.
Adopted by the United Nations on 25 November 1981, the 1981 Declaration spells out and delineates the right to freedom of religion or belief, which was initially recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
The 1981 Declaration indicates, for example, that the right to freedom of religion or belief includes the right to “establish and maintain” places of worship; to “write, issue and disseminate” religious publications; to “observe days of rest and to celebrate holidays”; and to “establish and maintain communications with individuals and communities in matters of religion and belief at the national and international levels.”
The Prague commemoration was sanctioned as the official, international commemoration of the adoption of the 1981 Declaration by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. It was organized by Jan Ghanea Tabrizi of Tolerance 95, an NGO based in the Czech Republic, and Nazila Ghanea of the UK-based Centre for International Human Rights, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. Funding was provided by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.