Human Rights

NGOs and governments form a new coalition to promote religious tolerance

Some 200 representatives from various governments, non-governmental organizations and religious communities call for greater efforts to promote freedom of religion and belief, urging specifically that the UN office charged with monitoring religious intolerance be strengthened.

OSLO, Norway - The right to freedom of religion is surely one of the thorniest issues in international relations, concerning as it does the deepest beliefs of peoples and cultures and, all too often, touching on nerves made raw by long-running regional or religious conflicts.

So it is understandable, perhaps, that international efforts to monitor and prevent religious intolerance have sometimes been overlooked by governments and others, despite strong international declarations that clearly uphold the right of religious freedom or belief - and despite strong teachings by all of the religions that stress tolerance, peace and good will.

In August, however, a gathering of some 200 representatives from various governments, non-governmental organizations and religious communities issued a call for greater attention to the issue, urging specifically that the United Nations office charged with monitoring religious intolerance be strengthened. As significantly, perhaps, they also moved to form a new coalition aimed at bolstering such efforts.

Cosponsored by the Council for Religious and Lifestance Communities in Norway, of which the Bahá'í community of Norway is a member, the Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief brought together a highly diverse and prominent group of government delegates, human rights experts, religious leaders, and NGO representatives from 12-15 August 1998.

In its final declaration, the group urged the world community to give increased financial and personnel support to the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, the main UN officer charged with monitoring human rights violations and concerns in the area of freedom of religion or belief. In this regard, the Government of Norway announced a grant of some US$1.5 million to support the Special Rapporteur's office. The Government of Norway also gave complete financial support to the Conference.

More dramatic in some respects was the Conference's proposal to establish a coalition of "governments, religious or belief communities, academic institutions and non-governmental organizations" with the aim of giving ongoing support to the Special Rapporteur and other international institutions and instruments which aim to protect the freedom of religion or belief.

"The intention is to form the coalition as wide as possible," said Stig Utnem, chair of the Host Committee.

As such, the Conference marks yet another example of the increasing partnership between governments and NGOs in addressing key international issues.

“Everyone, including the Special Rapporteur, concedes that the NGOs have a new place in this whole order. The governments themselves can't do the job, especially in human rights and particularly in religious issues. Because the interested parties are usually NGO bodies, such as religious groups. So this is a very important development in deepening cooperation between governments and non-governmental groups."

 -- David Little, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

"Everyone, including the Special Rapporteur, concedes that the NGOs have a new place in this whole order," said David Little, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, a US government-sponsored research and training center, who was the lead US representative to the Conference. "The governments themselves can't do the job, especially in human rights and particularly in religious issues. Because the interested parties are usually NGO bodies, such as religious groups. So this is a very important development in deepening cooperation between governments and non-governmental groups."

Indeed, the Conference was also noteworthy for the involvement of religious leaders from diverse communities - communities that in some parts of the world are in conflict or disharmony. Religious participants included representatives from the Bahá'í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Moslem and Sikh communities. And many of the speeches and panel discussions at the Conference focused quite specifically on regional/religious conflicts or issues as they relate to human rights, an aspect that many participants said helped to create a new dialogue among faith groups on this issue.

"The particular difficulties surrounding freedom of religion and belief which, for so long, have inhibited interreligious conversation, no doubt have to do with the very profound issues and attitudes involved in religious belief or unbelief," said Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was a keynote speaker. "The call of believer and unbeliever alike is to resist the degeneration of fundamental beliefs from their liberating potential into fundamentalist and dominating caricatures. Only in this way will authentic religious freedom be upheld."

A Strategic Plan

As outlined by the organizers, the Conference's main aim was to establish a new international coalition and develop a strategic plan to achieve real progress and practical support for Article 18 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination, which are the two main international instruments that uphold the right to religious freedom.

To that end, participants issued the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief, a two-page call to action which reaffirms that every person has the right to freedom of religion or belief; recognizes that religions and beliefs teach peace and good will; and challenges "governments, religious bodies, interfaith associations, humanist communities, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions to create educational programs using the 1981 Declaration as a universal standard to build a culture of tolerance and understanding and respect between people of diverse beliefs."

"It is becoming increasingly clear that the promotion and defense of religious freedom is one of the most pressing items on the international agenda," said Hilde Frafjord Johnson, Norway's minister of international development and human rights, who opened the Conference. "It also deserves higher priority. The work of promoting respect for human rights is rooted in a fundamental belief in human dignity. Thus, human rights are based on moral values. One of our overriding aims is to contribute to a world in which every human being is guaranteed the right to life, an opportunity to live in peace, freedom and security, and the fulfillment of basic needs. Respect for human rights is the foundation of a life of dignity. These are grand words, but they are true, and they should challenge us to action."

Ms. Johnson and others said that among the factors which have pushed religious freedom to the top of the international agenda are the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism, which have unleashed old ethnic and religious rivalries in many regions, the increasing use of religious and ethnic rivalries by leaders for political gain, and a general revival of religious feeling in many countries and regions that has sometimes expressed itself in extreme terms.

In his address Abdelfattah Amor, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, said that these new realities have created an urgent necessity for action.

"Numerous countries have problems assimilating the human rights instruments, and religious persecutions continue, including everything from verbal intimidation to violence and terrorism," said Prof. Amor, a professor of international law at the University of Tunis Law School in Tunisia. "Lack of education focused on tolerance, especially to the young generations, is a main problem."

More resources are needed, Prof. Amor said, to counteract extremism, adding that the problem of terrorists who kill in the name of God is a main challenge for society. "Silence and indifference towards these actions will only increase the phenomenon," Prof. Amor said. "Tolerance towards extremism is tolerance for the intolerable. Extremism should be counteracted in every possible way and find its definitive place where it belongs, in our history."

Throughout the Conference, speakers suggested that real hope for progress lies in an interdisciplinary, cross-sectorial approach that will bring together not only the various actors - from governments to religious organizations - but that also extends beyond simple support for legal instruments, encompassing new efforts to educate young people about the importance of tolerance.

"The critical issue is how to ensure effective international protection of freedom of religion or belief at the dawn of the 21st century," said Bahiyyih G. Tahzib, an expert on the rights of freedom of religion and belief from the Netherlands. "A host of recommendations have been made, many of them need to be more known and others require elaboration and further debate. Clearly, combatting religious intolerance and discrimination requires an interdisciplinary and long-term approach including legislative measures, legal measures, but especially measures such as education and dialogue."

Conference participants also called for new research into the issue of freedom of religion and belief, urging development of specialized informational resources and methodologies for collecting information, monitoring compliance and initiating comparative country studies. Conference organizers said they hope to establish, for example, a comprehensive site on the World Wide Web that would help provide timely information to decision-makers about intolerance.

"There is a growing body of religious, philosophical and scientific research into the root causes of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief," said Michael Roan, head of The Tandem Project, a US-based NGO that specializes in the issue of freedom of religion and belief and which was a co-organizer of the Oslo Conference, along with the Diacona College Centre in Norway. "But very little of this research has been made available in simplified form for analysis by the United Nations."

An opportunity for dialogue

The Conference itself was especially interesting because of the opportunities for dialogue that emerged. Between some of the groups represented in Oslo there are now, or have been in the past, tensions.China, for example, sent a delegation of experts; also present were representatives from exiled Tibetan groups who object to China's presence in Tibet. There were also many representatives from various countries and groups in the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Iran.

The main Bahá'í representative to the Conference, Techeste Ahderom, spoke about the situation of Bahá'ís in Iran, suggesting that there is no better example of genuine religious intolerance, inasmuch as the fundamental teachings of Bahá'í Faith call for noninvolvement in politics and the Bahá'ís of Iran accordingly eschew any political ideology. Mr. Ahderom said that Bahá'ís in Iran are nevertheless persecuted, noting that as recently as July a Bahá'í was executed by the government. [See next page.] Present during the speech were members of an academic-oriented delegation from Iran. When asked about the situation of the Bahá'ís, one of the Iranian delegates said simply, "We cannot overprotect the minorities."

On the whole, the Conference provided a forum for the expression of tolerance and good will-another example of a growing pattern of constructive transcultural discourse among the world's peoples. Numerous times, religious leaders of all creeds emphasized that religions and beliefs should teach peaceful relations with others and that they as religious authorities in their communities should do their utmost to prevent religion from being misused to cause intolerance, discrimination and prejudice.

"Where the claim to universality of fundamental human rights is denied, refuted or reduced," said Gunnar Stålsett, the Bishop of Oslo (Lutheran) and a co-president of the Conference, "we need to struggle as individuals, faith or belief communities, and nations - not with weapons that kill but with words that heal - words of spiritual wisdom, political acumen and moral conviction."

- Reported by Lisbeth Mattsson Johannensen


United Nations Declaration Against Intolerance

Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly [on the Report of the Third Committee (A/36/684)] 36/55. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Considering that one of the basic principles of the Charter of the United Nations is that of the dignity and equality inherent in all human beings, and that all Member States have pledged themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization to promote and encourage universal respect for the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion, Considering that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights [General Assembly Resolution 217A (III)] and the International Covenants on Human Rights [General Assembly Resolution 2200A (XXI)] proclaim the principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief,

Considering that the disregard and infringement of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or whatever belief, have brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to mankind, especially where they serve as a means of foreign interference in the internal affairs of other States and amount to kindling hatred between peoples and nations,

Considering that religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life and that freedom of religion or belief should be fully respected and guaranteed, Considering that it is essential to promote understanding, tolerance and respect in matters relating to freedom of religion and belief to ensure that the use of religion or belief for ends inconsistent with the Charter, other relevant instruments of the United Nations and the purposes and principles of the present Declaration is inadmissable,

Convinced that freedom of religion and belief should also contribute to the attainment of the goals of world peace, social justice and friendship among peoples and to the elimination of ideologies or practices of colonialism and racial discrimination,

Noting with satisfaction the adoption of several, and the coming force of some, conventions, under the aegis of the United Nations and of the specialized agencies, for the elimination of various forms of discrimination, Concerned by manifestations of intolerance and by the existence of discrimination in matters of religion or belief still in evidence in some areas of the world,

Resolved to adopt all necessary measures for the speedy elimination of such intolerance in all its forms and manifestations and to prevent and combat discrimination on the grounds of religion of belief,

Proclaims this Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief:

Article 1

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.

3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Article 2

1. No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons or person on the grounds of religion or other beliefs.

2. For the purposes of the present Declaration, the expression "intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief" means 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.

Article 3

Discrimination between human beings on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and shall be condemned as a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and enunciated in detail in the International Covenants on Human Rights, and as an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between nations.

Article 4

1. All States shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life.

2. All States shall make all efforts to enact or rescind legislation where necessary to prohibit any such discrimination, and take all appropriate measures to combat intolerance on the grounds of religion or other beliefs in this matter.

Article 5

1. The parents or, as the case may be, the legal guardians of the child have the right to organize the life within the family in accordance with their religion or belief and bearing in mind the moral education in which they believe the child should be brought up.

2. Every child shall enjoy the right to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.

3. The child shall be protected from any form of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. He shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, respect for freedom of religion or belief of others, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men.

4. In the case of a child who is not under the care either of his parents or of legal guardians, due account shall be taken of their expressed wishes or of any other proof of their wishes in the matter of religion or belief, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.

5. Practices of a religion or beliefs in which a child is brought up must not be injurious to his physical or mental health or to his full development, taking into account article 1, paragraph 3, of the present Declaration.

Article 6

In accordance with article 1 of the present Declaration, and subject to the provisions of article 1, paragraph 3, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief shall include, inter alia, the following freedoms:

(a) To worship or assemble in connexion with a religion or belief, and to establish and maintain places for these purposes;

(b) To establish and maintain appropriate charitable or humanitarian institutions;

(c) To make, acquire and use to an adequate extent the necessary articles and materials related to the rites or customs of a religion or belief;

(d) To write, issue and disseminate relevant publications in these areas;

(e) To teach a religion or belief in places suitable for these purposes;

(f) To solicit and receive voluntary financial and other contributions from individuals and institutions;

(g) To train, appoint, elect or designate by succession appropriate leaders called for by the requirements and standards of any religion or belief;

(h) To observe days of rest and to celebrate holidays and ceremonies in accordance with the precepts of one's religion or belief;

(i) To establish and maintain communications with individuals and communities in matters of religion and belief at the national and international levels.

Article 7

The rights and freedoms set forth in the present Declaration shall be accorded in national legislations in such a manner that everyone shall be able to avail himself of such rights and freedoms in practice.

Article 8

Nothing in the present Declaration shall be construed as restricting or derogating from any right defined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenants on Human Rights.

73rd plenary meeting

25 November 1981


THE OSLO DECLARATION on FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF

Whereas the Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, meeting in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reaffirms that every person has the right to freedom of religion or belief;

And whereas participants in the Oslo Conference have accepted the challenge to build an international coalition and to develop a strategic plan of action to achieve substantial progress in and give practical support to the implementation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief;

Therefore, we the participants in the Oslo Conference:

Recognize that religions and beliefs teach peace and good will;

Recognize that religions and beliefs may be misused to cause intolerance, discrimination and prejudice, and have all to often been used to deny the rights and freedoms of others;

Affirm that every human being has a responsibility to condemn discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief, and to apply religion or belief in support of human dignity and peace;

Consider the founding of the United Nations and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be watershed events, in which the world community recognized for the first time that the existence of human rights transcends the laws of sovereign states;

Confirm that Article 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights together with other instruments create both a mandate for freedom of religion or belief and a universal standard around which we wish to rally;

Recognize that the U.N. has made significant accomplishments in strengthening this universal standard by passage of the 1981 U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, by the appointment of a Special Rapporteur to monitor its implementation, and by further defining freedom of religion or belief in the General Comment on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

Recommend that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights change the title of the Rapporteur to Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief;

Urge increased financial and personnel support to the U.N. to implement the work of the Special Rapporteur and his recommendations;

Request the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to develop a coordinated plan to focus resources of the United Nations, including all specialized agencies and bodies such as UNESCO, ILO, UNDP, and UNHCR on problems involving freedom of religion or belief;

Call for UNESCO to expand work for peace through religious and cultural dialogue and encourage intensified co-operation with UNESCO in this field;

Urge scholars and teachers to study and apply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1981 Declaration as universal standards on freedom of religion or belief and as a way to solve problems of intolerance and discrimination caused by competing beliefs;

Challenge governments, religious bodies, interfaith associations, humanist communities, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions to create educational programs using the 1981 Declaration as a universal standard to build a culture of tolerance and understanding and respect between people of diverse beliefs;

Further urge U.N. member states to use the 1981 Declaration and other relevant instruments to mediate, negotiate, and resolve intolerance, discrimination, injustice and violence in conflicts where religion or belief plays a role;

Support research and development of other informational resources and methodologies for collecting information, monitoring compliance and initiating comparative country studies to strengthen the work of the United Nations and protect freedom of religion or belief;

Urge the organizers and sponsors of the Oslo Conference, in consultation with Conference participants:

• to review the discussions and recommendations of the Conference, with the purpose of creating an "Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief," inviting support and participation by governments, religious or belief communities, academic institutions and non-governmental organizations; and

• to develop a strategic plan of action and seek funding to carry out programs and projects based on its recommendations, in cooperation with the United Nations system.

Oslo, 15. August 1998

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