• Facing Our Conflicts

 It is a sad reality that religious and non-religious beliefs have been used throughout history for purposes that are less than peaceful. There are well known examples, such as the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, as kings and popes rose up huge armies to war against Muslims in the Holy Land. In the 20th century, the Nazi in World War II used pagan mythology or “folk religion” to justify their belief in Aryan superiority. Japan viewed their Emperor as a deity, looking to him for religious sanctification of their actions in World War II. Marxist-Leninism, an atheist ideology, led to the atrocities under Stalin and the great Cold War of the last century against the West and religion. Hindu and Muslim followers killed each other by millions as they met and crossing the border between what is now Pakistan and India, after the collapse of the British Raj in 1947. And still today, Afghanistan was the fundamentalist breeding ground for extreme forms of Islam that led to the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001.

In her book, Battle for God, Karen Armstrong has stated, “One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as fundamentalism (some prefer the term extremism). Its manifestations are sometimes shocking. Fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, have killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, have shot their presidents, and have even toppled powerful governments.

It is only a small minority who commit such acts of terror, but even the most peaceful and law abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the positive values of a modern society. Fundamentalism, more over, is not confined to the great monotheisms. There are Buddhist, Hindu, and even Confucian fundamentalism, which fight and kill in the name of religion and strive to bring the sacred into the realm of politics and national struggle.” 1

  • United Nations Response

In 1948, the U.N. adopted Article 18--the right to freedom of religion or belief, as one of thirty articles in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, but did not began to study this intractable, historical concern, in a specific way until 1961. In 1962, the General Assembly adopted a resolution to prepare separate legal treaties (known as conventions) on racism and religion. The result was a relatively quick preparation and passage, in 1969, of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and a slower, more complex process regarding religious intolerance and discrimination. According to one U.N. participant, “it was more difficult to legislate on religious freedom than on racial discrimination, since religious freedom impinged on the most intimate emotions of human beings.”

  • U.N. Commission on Human Rights

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, a body composed of 53 Member States, assigned its Sub-Commission the responsibility of drafting a declaration or convention on religious freedom and reporting back to the Commission. In 1978, seventeen frustrating years after the Sub-Commission began its task, the U.N. General Assembly noted “with regret” that it had so far adopted only the title and preamble of a declaration. It demonstrated the complexity of the issues involved, including the critical problem of defining the limits of this freedom.

Finally, in 1979, there was a breakthrough in the working group wrestling with the definition of the right to freedom of religion or belief. The U.N. Commission moved rapidly at that point adopting a draft declaration (not legally binding) on 10 March, 1981. The following November, the U.N. General Assembly adopted for the first time in world history, a special international human rights instrument on freedom of religion or belief. A lengthy drafting history covering two decades of complex discussion, intense struggle and hard work ended, resulting on 25 November 1981 in passage by the General Assembly of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The 1981 U.N. Declaration to this day is the only specific international human rights instrument on freedom of religion or belief.

  • U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights appoints independent experts called Special Rapportuers to examine incidents of intolerance, discrimination and the abuse of human rights. These experts are appointed to monitor what are called “extra-conventional mechanisms,” declarations that do not carry the weight of a legally-binding international treaty called a convention. There are two kinds of Special Rapporteur’s, those appointed to examine all human rights abuses in a U.N. Member State, and those who are appointed to examine a theme such as freedom of religion or belief, violence against women, etc. As of 2003 there were 37 appointed country and thematic Special Rapportuer’s.

In 1986, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights created the position of Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance for the 1981 U.N. Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The person holding the position was charged with the mandate of reporting annually to the Commission on the status of its implementation. The key point of departure in all U.N. matters relating to human rights and freedom of religion or belief is the Special Rapporteur. It is the only international mandate with a worldwide scope and thus the role is crucial. In 1998, The Tandem Project made the suggestion at an Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief that the title of the U.N. Special Rapporteur be changed to Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to reflect the title of the 1981 U.N. Declaration and to indicate that the right included protection for all religious and non-religious beliefs. The U.N. General Assembly approved this title change in 2000.

The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief is threefold; to examine incidents and actions in all parts of the world that are inconsistent with the 1981 U.N. Declaration, to receive communications from individuals and groups who allegedly have been discriminated against and make inquiries to States on the nature of these allegations, and to recommend remedial measures including, as appropriate, research, education and the promotion of dialogue.

There have been annual reports by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights since the inception of this mandate in 1986. Many of the illustrations and specific reports, in this training manual, on alleged incidents of intolerance and discrimination in Member States come from the Special Rapportuer’s reports that are released to the public by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. These reports are then sent on to the U.N. General Assembly for approval. Many of the case studies of alleged discrimination in this manual on How to Monitor Human Rights & Freedom of Religion or Belief come from the reports to the General Assembly on 8 September 2000 (A/55/280) and the report the following year, 31 July 2001 (A/56/253). For additional reports, students should go to the U.N. Human Rights website http://www.unhchr.org. The can be found in the Charter-Based Database.

1 Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, Knopf Publishing, New York (20002) p.3 back