United Nations History

How to Monitor Human Rights and Freedom of Religion or Belief: Equal Protection bySeparation of Belief and State, is a Community Manual on United Nations human rights legislation in this field. Freedom of conscience, to believe or not to believe, as a person chooses, is a fundamental freedom and a basic human right. Before studying the Community Manual, a U.N. history is in order to inform the reader of past actions and the present position of the United Nations regarding freedom of religion or belief.

  •   United Nations History

 The United Nations was founded in San Francisco in 1945, in response to the atrocities of World War II. In Germany, the war was justified in part by a Nazi pagan mythology or “folk religion” justifying belief in Aryan superiority. Japan viewed their Emperor as a deity, looking to him for religious sanctification of their actions in World War II. All religious expression in open opposition to these beliefs was violently suppressed. The use of religion as a justification for war motivated the U.N. and governments to create a framework to protect freedom of religion or belief, while addressing ways to eliminate all intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.

In 1948, the United Nations appointed Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, Rene Cassin of France, P.C. Chang of China and Charles H. Malik of Lebanon, to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of the Declaration was drafted to read, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his [her] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in private or public, to manifest his [her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Subsequently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the language on Article 18 was codified into law as an international treaty by the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Legal human rights conventions followed passage of the ICCPR such as the convention against racism, the convention on the rights of the child and the convention against torture. But a legal convention on freedom of religion or belief was never proposed due to the complex, sensitive and passionate political positions of U.N. member States.

After twenty years of debate, in 1981 the United Nations General Assembly passed a non-legally binding Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The phrase “based on religion or belief” gave recognition in the title to the creation of inclusive language demanded by two opposing ideologies at the start of the Cold War--religious liberty in the West, versus so called God-less Communism in the East.

Before approving the 1981 U.N. Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Member States of both religious and atheist persuasions issued reservations about its language. Bulgaria, representing the Eastern Soviet Bloc of States registered a reservation (a typical escape used by member States to avoid legal agreements) complaining that the 1981 U.N. Declaration favored religion over atheistic beliefs. Iraq, representing an Islamic religious block of U.N. member States issued a reservation on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference implying it did not do enough to confirm the supremacy of religion. 1

These opposing principles, theism versus atheism, continued to have their defenders after passage of the 1981 U.N. Declaration. Article 36 of the 1982 Chinese Constitution stated, “no one may make use of religions to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the state educational system.” In 1990, at a meeting of Foreign Ministers of the 55 State Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam in Article 1 reads, “all human beings form one family whose members are united by submission to God and descent from Adam.”

  • United Nations Position

In 1993, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) issued General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. General Comments by the HRC are guidelines for member States who are signatories to the Covenant and, under legal international statues, have responsibility for periodic reports to the General Assembly on how they are implementing their obligations.

The 1993 General Comment 22 on Article 18 resolves opposing principles of theism vs. atheism by transcending them in this way, “ ARTICLE 18 PROTECTS THEISTIC, NON- THEISTIC AND ATHEISTIC BELIEFS, AS WELL AS THE RIGHT NOT TO PROFESS ANY RELIGION OR BELIEF. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is impartial and must protect religious and non-religious beliefs—equally. This means the United Nations to be true to its own Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must place a higher priority on the inclusive principle of freedom of religion or belief, than more exclusive religious rights.

How to Monitor Human Rights and Freedom of Religion or Belief: Equal Protection bySeparation of Belief and State, is a Community Manual for the United Nations position on freedom of religion or belief, by using existing U.N. human rights instruments to implement this principle on a community level.

1 Bahiyyih G. Tahzib, Freedom of Religion or Belief: Ensuring Effective International Legal Protection, Kluwer Publishing, Amsterdam (1996) p. 185. “Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and the USSR signed the Bulgaria reservation. Syria and Iran signed Iraq’s collective reservation. back