Monitoring Pressures against Religious Freedom


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

3 Jul 2020 – Religious freedom is under pressure today.  A worldwide erosion of religious freedom is causing large scale human suffering and grave injustice.  In some cases, a religion is closely associated to an ethnic group or a tribal community. It is more inter-ethnic tensions which are the motor of the dispute rather than the core belief system.  Thus the armed conflicts between the Dogon and the Peul in Mali have more to do with conflict over land use than the nature of the Dogon belief system.  In other cases, such as the persecution of the Baha’i in Iran, it is the belief system that is the central factor since the Baha’i in Iran has members in all the ethnic groups.

International standards of religious freedom are set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted on 10 December 1948.

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 company with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

These standards are set out in greater detail in the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.  The Declaration was debated and finalized in the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. When the U. N. secretariat for human rights moved from New York to Geneva in 1977, I was involved in these discussions.  The Preamble to the Declaration expresses the conviction that,

freedom of religion and belief should also contribute to the attainment of the goals of world peace, social justice and friendship among peoples.”

As a result of the Declaration the Commission on Human Rights has created in 1986 the post of Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance.  The establishment of international legal norms is a necessary but insufficient bulwark against abuse because of religious beliefs and practices. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in consultative status with the U.N. and active within its human rights bodies have provided timely information concerning violations of the right to freedom of religion and belief.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights offers NGOs the possibility to present statements – both oral and written – and to undertake private discussions with government Representatives.  There is a small U.N. human rights staff that processes information sent to the Special Rapporteur and who are often helpful to NGO representatives.

Religious liberty has always played a role in the goals of the United States, if not always its practice.  In the “Four Freedom” speech of January 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said,

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon, four essential human freedoms.  The first is freedom to speech and expression…The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way…The third is freedom from want …The fourth is freedom from fear, which translated into world terms, means… that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor… That is no vision of a distant millennium.  It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our time and generation.” 

Roosevelt linked freedom of expression and freedom of religion to the need for global security and stability.

A dim echo of the Four Freedoms was in 1998. The U.S. Congress mandated the advancement of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy by passing the International Religious Freedom Act which President Bill Clinton signed into law.  An Office of International Religious Freedom was established within the State Department along with a Independent Commission. Since 1999, the State Department has issued its Report on International Religious Freedom with information on some 195 States based on information provided by U.S. Foreign Service officers, NGOs, the media and religious bodies. The number of U.S. staff people thanked in the introduction for their contribution indicates a much larger staff than that serving the U.N. Special Rapporteur.

Information in the U.S. Report can be colored or downplayed by broader U.S. foreign policy aims, but one does not have to be a foreign policy expert “to read between the lines”.  The Report contains useful information on which NGOs can follow up.  My analysis of some of the Report will follow in the next issue of TRANSCEND Media Service. My aim here is to call attention to both U.N. and U.S. efforts.


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 6 Jul 2020.

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