Upholding Freedom of Conscience and Belief at the UN

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 25 Nov 2019

René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

25 November is the date anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly resolution in 1981 to proclaim the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.  The Declaration is a development of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights highlighting freedom or thought, conscience, religion or belief.  The 1981 Declaration is now recognized as articulating the fundamental right of freedom of conscience, religion, and belief.

The efforts for such a U.N. declaration began in 1962.  Two conventions were proposed by African States, many of whom had joined the U.N. after their 1960 independence.  One convention was to deal with racism.  Since racism in the minds of many delegates was largely limited to Apartheid in South Africa, work on a racism convention progressed quickly and was adopted in 1965.  Freedom of religion was more complex.  The effort was led by Liberia, but ran into East-West Cold War divisions.  Work on a convention was largely completed by 1967 when the Six Day War in the Middle East broke out, making religious issues all the more sensitive at the U.N.

One issue was that there was no agreed upon definition as to what is “religion”, thus the longer term used of “thought, conscience, religion or belief”.

Work was still slow.  Thus, it was decided to change the proposal from a “Convention” which is a treaty which must be ratified by the parliament of the Member State to a “Declaration” which can be voted by the U.N. General Assembly.  The second modification was to change the declaration from a positive one – “freedom of religion or belief” to a negative one “elimination of intolerance and discrimination” based on religion or belief.

Work on the Declaration had begun at the U.N. in New York. When the human rights bodies of the U.N. moved in 1977 to Geneva, a working group on the Declaration was set up in which representatives on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Association of World Citizens, were particularly active.  By the summer of 1981, the drafting of the Declaration was complete.  The text was sent on to the delegates in New York and was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on 25 November 1981.

After 1981, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (become since the Human Rights Council) created the post of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion in 1985. The post continues today.  The Declaration has given NGOs an agreed upon standard to which to hold governments.  The 1981 Declaration cannot be implemented by U.N. bodies alone.  Beginning with the shift of the U.N. human rights secretariat to Geneva and the closer cooperation with NGO representatives, the role of NGOs is more often written into U.N. human rights resolutions, calling on NGO cooperation, education and fact-finding. Thus in the 1981 Declaration there is a paragraph which

requests the Secretary-General in this context to invite interested non-governmental organizations to consider what further role they could envisage playing in the implementation of the Declaration.”

 Thus, the Association of World Citizens has continued to play an active role in the U.N. human rights bodies when the right of belief and conscience has been under attack in different parts of the world.  Our policy has been to take a lead when a community under pressure was not part of an NGO in consultative status with representatives in Geneva who could speak for them.  In practice, the World Council of Churches speaks for Protestant and to a lesser degree for the Orthodox Churches.   The Vatican, which is considered a State, participates actively in human rights bodies and speaks for Roman Catholic churches.

Thus, the Association of World Citizens has, in recent years, raised the issues of the Mandaeans, also known as Sabian Mandaeans, in Iraq, the Yazidi in Iraq and Syria, the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar (Burma), the Baha’i in Yemen after having raised starting in 1980 the persecution of the Baha’i in Iran. Starting in 1985, there being no active Buddhist organization at the U.N. in Geneva at the time, we raised the condition of religious liberty of the Tibetans in Tibet.  This was followed by presentations of the fate of the Falun Gong movement in China.  They are basically Taoist but consider themselves as a separate movement or belief. There was no Taoist NGO at the U.N. that I knew of.

There is a worldwide erosion of the freedom of belief and conscience in many parts of the world causing large-scale suffering, grave injustice, and refugee flows.  Belief and conscience are efforts on the part of individuals and communities to understand and to seek to live in harmony with the laws of Nature and often to communicate their understanding and devotion to others.  The anniversary date of 25 November should be an opportunity to consider how to strengthen freedom of conscience and belief.

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René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Nov 2019.

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