The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

DR. HEINER BEILEFLDTNEW DELHI – 26th February 2014 at the India International Centre, New Delhi

1.   Human Rights

The Rapporteur relies on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) for the definition of human rights and calls it the “mother document” for all human rights. He refers to the preamble of the UDHR which talks about the recognition of the inherent dignity of all members of the human family.  He further refers to Article 1 of the UDHR which says that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity. The UDHR specifically recognises the dignity of human beings and says that the principles laid down in the UDHR are the guiding light for all human rights.

He explains that according to the Preamble of the UDHR, humans are given a broader definition as being members of the human family and hence no human being is alone. He further says that in the light of the above principles, equality and freedom are interrelated and that one cannot have one without the other. Referring to Article 18 of the UDHR as well as Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), he says that Freedom of Religion or Belief is intrinsically connected with human rights and is recognised specifically in these two important documents. 

2.   Secularism

The best way to implement Freedom of Religion or Belief is through a secular Constitution. Secularism can be of different types. India’s version of secularism is something that he subscribes wholly to. According to him, India’s version of secularism which opens up space to all religions and does not have any identification with any particular religion is the best kind of secularism. He calls it the respectful non-identification to any particular religion and says that it is a legacy worth cherishing. However, he observed that India’s secularism was under threat from various communal forces. [There is need for contingency plans ..  example of pastor jones Quran] burning aftermath when several European nations tested their emergency response programmes including their social communications, inter-community activism to ensure there was no violent response.]

3.   Freedom of Religion or Belief requires respect for the self understanding of human beings

Indiais the birthplace of many religions and is home to the existence of religious diversity. India is not only the world’s largest democracy but also the world’s largest secular democracy.

However, Freedom of Religion or Belief does not mean that the State can pre-define or dictate what religion its citizens should follow. Further, it is not the business of the State to tell its citizen which religion to follow. In fact Article 18 of the UDHR protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs of everyone. It covers both traditional and new forms of the same religion like Traditional Buddhism and Neo Buddhism. Clubbing together of different religions under one religion like the clubbing of Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism under Hinduism cannot be considered to be a freedom of religion or belief by any standard.     

 4.   Right to change

Conversion is a basic and important concept in Freedom of Religion or Belief. There can be no freedom of religion or belief by removing the freedom to convert. Conversion is not just a sub-category of freedom of religion; it is the test case for freedom of religion or belief.

The right to change one’s religion is a delicate area of conversion. Conversion can mean changing one’s religion or inviting another person to join one’s religion. Right to change is so important that the right to convert or change was recognised by the UDHR. That it significance can be seen even at the drafting stage of Article 18 of the UDHR, when the Drafting Committee included freedom to change one’s religion or belief, it was objected to by the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia at that time but supported by Pakistan.

If freedom of religion is a human right, then one should have the option to reconsider one’s faith even if it means breaking away from one’s present faith. It is a part and parcel and core part of Freedom of Religion or Belief.

There is an urgent need to reconsider the existing Freedom of Religion Acts in various Indian states. It is not freedom of religion that these Acts are promoting rather it is curbing the freedom of religion or belief of its citizens. The laws are draconian in nature and the colloquial use of the expression ‘anti-conversion laws” in reference to them is more apt than their original titles.

 5.   Right to invite others to one’s religion/missionary activity

Right to invite others to one’s religion is a part of the inner realm of Freedom of Religion or Belief though not as imperative as the right to change. Right to invite others to one’s religion involves dialogues between the concerned parties. The invitation cannot involve force at any point.

 6.   Protection against communal violence

With reference to the various riots that occurred in India against the minority community, the Rapporteur said that it cannot be called “riots” because riots involve equal participation by the parties involved. The riots against the minority communities were orchestrated by outside forces against peaceful members of minority communities. There are also instances of institutional bias within the security apparatus because it failed to protect the rights of the victims. Justice has prevailed in some cases but it still has a long way to go.

A way of countering such incidents is the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. The Rabat Plan of Action came into being in the context of the number of incidents in recent years in different parts of the world which have brought renewed attention to the issue of incitement to hatred which also contained a component of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred. One of the recommendations that the Rabat Plan of Action has made is that states should adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that includes preventive and punitive action to effectively combat incitement to hatred.

The Rabat Plan of Action should become part of the accreditation of national human rights institutions.

 7.   Minority and Majority

Human Rights is a universal right and not just confined to minority communities. Majority communities also have the benefit of being subject to human rights principles. Minorities need to reach out to the majority and emphasise that human rights is a universal right and that service to the country is based on universal human rights principles.

Similarly, freedom of religion or belief is not limited to the minority communities. However, it is a very important right for the minorities and perhaps it was the minorities who first discovered the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Freedom of Religion or Belief is important for the majority religions for an authentic and free development of society. It is also healthy for majority religions to live in a secular country because majority religions too have a lot to lose in states where there is a theocratic form of government.

There is a constant need for dialogue between the minority community and the majority community in order to fully realise the values of the human rights principles.  


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Filed under communal violence, Freedom of Religion, Right to Convert

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