The freedom of religion or belief has been a priority for the United Nations since it was founded. Several texts ensure this protection, notably:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 10 December 1948 (article 18)
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 16 December 1966, ratified by France in 1980
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 21 December 1965, ratified by France in 1971 (article 18)
The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief adopted by the UNGA (resolution 36/55) on 25 November 1981 (article 5)
The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities adopted by the UNGA (resolution 47/135) on 18 December 1992.
Furthermore, the States have clearly expressed their opposition to all use of religion or conviction for purposes incompatible with the UN Charter or the other relevant UN instruments.
The freedom of religion or belief encompasses the following elements in particular:
- the right to have a religion or conviction of your choice, the right not to have one, to change it or to give it up
- the prohibition of all discrimination based on religion or conviction
- the freedom to manifest one’s religion or conviction, “individually or in community with others and in public or private,” to practice a religion, to perform rituals, customs or to teach a religion
- the possibility of limitations on the manifestation of a religion or conviction if these limitations are prescribed by law and are necessary to ensure public safety, order, health, or morals
- the prohibition of any religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence
- the freedom to establish and maintain places to worship, teach or assemble in connection with a religion or belief
- the freedom to write, issue and disseminate publications on religions or convictions – the prohibition of any constraint on a person that might infringe their freedom to have or adopt a religion or conviction of their choice
- Practices of a religion or belief in which a child is brought up shall be prohibited if they are injurious to his physical or mental health or to his full development
The freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief involves giving consideration to persons belonging to religious minorities. These persons have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language, in private and in public, freely and without any interference or any form of discrimination. The States must therefore protect the existence and religious identity of the minorities within their territories and encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.
Women pray outside a mosque in observance of Eid al-Fitr - 1 October 2008 - Dili, Timor-Leste - UN Photo/Martine Perret
The General Assembly has adopted several resolutions to strengthen the framework for the protection of the freedom of religion and belief.
A/ Freedom of religion or belief
In its resolution 36/55 of 25 November 1981, the General Assembly adopted by consensus the “Statement on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.” This statement defines intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on religion or belief and having as its purpose or as its effect nullification or impairment of the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis.”
Since then, the EU presents each year a resolution entitled "Elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief" and, since 2012, "Freedom of religion or belief." This (resolution, adopted by consensus at the General Assembly, recalls that freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are interdependent, interrelated and mutually reinforcing.
B / Fight against intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence based on religion or belief
After several years of debate and tension on the concept of "defamation of religions" (see C / below), an agreement was reached with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 2011 to set aside the concept.
At the Human Rights Council (Resolution 16/18) and then at the General Assembly (Resolution 66/167), a text was adopted by consensus and places the debate in the field of human rights, recalling that people, not religions, must be protected from discrimination and incitement to racial or religious hatred. It proposes courses of action, inspired among others by the speech of the OIC Secretary-General to the Human Rights Council in March 2011.
C/ The defamation of religions
In the wake of the affair known as the “Mohammed caricatures” affair, the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) presented a resolution entitled “Combating defamation of religions.”
For several years, the OIC presented each year a text with the same purpose each year and adopted by the General Assembly following a vote.
The European Union always opposed to it: its members do not see the concept of defamation of religions as a valid one in an arena committed to the protection and promotion of human rights and believe that we need to protect the rights of individuals in the exercise of their freedom of religion or belief, rather than the religions as such. By focusing on the obligation to protect a religion, the notion of “defamation of religions” can be used to justify arbitrary limitations imposed on certain human rights or prohibiting the exercise of these rights, in particular the freedom of expression.
France believes that, since human rights are correlated and indivisible, the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion and belief complement each other. It believes that the notion of “defamation of religions” is not compatible with international human rights law, which aims to protect individuals not doctrines of thought.
With this in mind, it is vital to distinguish between the criticism of religions and beliefs and the incitement to religious hatred. Only the latter must be opposed to the extent that it constitutes incitement to discrimination in accordance with articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
That’s why France, together with its European partners, has adopted a firm political position which is systematically defended in the international arenas in order to oppose the relativist concept of defamation of religions.
This position was formalized by the adoption of the conclusions of the EU Council on the freedom of religion and belief of 16 November 2009: this text reflects the values of laïcité (secularism). It affirms, in particular, the need to provide adequate and effective guarantees of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and underlines that the freedom of expression is intrinsically linked to it, citing in particular the right to criticize religion.
It also reaffirms that the freedom of religion and belief includes the right to adopt or to abandon a religion, as well as the right not to profess a religion.
A/ The Human Rights Committee
Based in Geneva, the Human Rights Committee was established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and by its two Optional Protocols available to the States Parties to monitor its implementation. The Human Rights Committee is made up of 18 experts, including a French judge, Mrs. Christine Chanet.
In 1993, the Human Rights Committee’s General Comments 22 provided a framework for discussing and defining the freedom of thought, conscience and religion which underpins the entire United Nations system.
B/ The Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council, a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly, was established on 15 March 2006 by resolution 60/251 in order to improve the implementation and promotion of human rights throughout the world. It is tasked with examining situations of human rights violations and with issuing recommendations for tackling them. (See our “Human Rights” section).
C/ Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief
The mandate of the “Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance,” which became the “Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief” in 2000, was established in 1986 by the Human Rights Commission (resolution 1986/20) which became the Human Rights Council. The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council, in its resolution 6/37, invites in particular the Special Rapporteur to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.
22 October 2008 - General Assembly - Statement on behalf of the European union delivered by Mr Philippe Delacroix
20 December 2012 - General Assembly - Resolution - Freedom of religion or belief
19 December 2011 - General Assembly - Resolution 66/167 - Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief
19 December 2011 - General Assembly - Resolution A/RES/66/168 - Elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief
24 March 2011 - Human Rights Council - Resolution 16/18 - Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief
21 December 2010 - Resolution A/RES/65/211 - Elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief
21 December 2010 - Resolution A/RES/65/224 - Combating defamation of religions
17 March 2010 - Resolution A/RES/64/164 - Elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief
8 March 2010 - Resolution A/RES/64/156 - Combating defamation of religions
25 November 1981 - Resolution 36/55 - Declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief
General comments :
30 July1993 - Human Rights Committee - General comments
16 December 1966 - International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
21 December 1965 - International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
10 December 1948 - Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948
16 November 2009 - Council of the European Union Conclusions on freedom of religion or belief