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International Documents

Religious Freedom and the International Community

Three of the most significant international treaties and conventions related to religious freedom are:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.

Articles 18 is perhaps the most well-known international statement on religious freedom:

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

Article 26 refers to education to “promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations, racial or religious groups."

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)

This is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966. It commits its parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial.

Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981)

This landmark United Nations resolution was passed in 1981. It includes declarations on the topics of religious intolerance, freedom of religion, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.

Other International Agreements

United Nations Charter (1945)

Articles 1,13,55: The Charter of the United Nations in these articles uses the phrase “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948)

Article 2: This article defines genocide as any act “with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951)

Article 4: Refers to refugees being accorded the same rights as nationals “with respect to freedom to practice their religion and freedom as regards the religious education of their children.”

Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954)

Articles 3, 4: Contains the same language, with respect to religion or belief, as found in the Charter of the United Nations and the Convention on the Status of Refugees.

Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960)

Articles 1, 2, 5: These articles state that the establishment or maintenance of separate educational institutions for religious reasons is not discriminatory, if it is in keeping with the wishes of parents or legal guardians, and providing that these institutions conform to educational standards developed by competent authorities, and are directed to the full development of the human personality and to strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)

Article 5: This article declares that full compliance with this convention includes the right to freedom of religion or belief for all racial and ethnic groups, along with other fundamental rights and freedoms.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979)

Article 16: This article deals with women’s rights in the context of family relations. Several Muslim states have reservations to this article due to perceived conflicts with national laws and shari’a law. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has refuted reservations to Article 16, and has several recommendations regarding conflicts between obligations to the Convention and traditional religious or cultural practices. The Committee calls on States to eradicate such religious-based practices as forced marriage, dowry deaths, and female circumcision.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)

Article 14: This article identifies the rights of the child to freedom of religion or belief. It differs from article 5 of the 1981 UN Declaration in that it respects the rights and duties of parents or legal guardians, but places an emphasis on providing direction in a manner consistent with the “evolving” capacity of the child, and calls on states to limit practices of religions or beliefs that may be injurious to the child, as elaborated in Article 18, paragraph 3 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A child is defined as anyone below the age of 18 years.