Perspective: Cultural liberty and freedom of belief

Editor's note: The following Perspective is adapted from a statement titled “Freedom to Believe,” which was recently issued by the Bahá'í International Community.

The freedom to hold beliefs of one's choosing and to change them is central to human development. It is the individual's search for meaning and the desire to know who we are as human beings that distinguish the human conscience.

We applaud the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for its 2004 Human Development Report, “Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World.” For the first time in the Report's fifteen-year history, it acknowledges cultural liberty as a “vital part of human development” and affirms the “profound importance of religion to people's identities.”

Human Development Reports have evolved dramatically from a purely materialist approach centered on wealth and income to embrace the concept of development as the expansion of human freedoms. By including cultural freedom in its analysis — including the freedom of religion or belief — the UNDP has once again broadened the conceptual framework underpinning the evaluation of progress in human development.

The UNDP's focus could not be more timely. Human development and security — two issues at the heart of today's global agenda — have refocused the attention of the international community on the question of human freedom. And the 2004 Report has set the stage for an earnest re-examination of the role of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in human development.

As a worldwide religious community that regards the human conscience as sacred and believes in the independent search for truth, the Bahá'í International Community urges the UNDP to give serious consideration to four critical issues intimately related to its Report: (1) the right to change one's religion or beliefs; (2) the right to share one's beliefs with others; (3) the responsibilities of the international community and national governments vis à vis marginalized and peacefully organized religious communities; and (4) the responsibilities of religious leaders vis à vis the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

1) The right to change one's religion or beliefs. The Human Development Report defines cultural liberty as the “capability of people to live and be what they choose, with adequate opportunity to consider other options.” The Report, however, focuses primarily on cultural exclusion based on “external'” manifestations of one's religion or belief while omitting from its discussion the core dimension of cultural exclusion — namely a denial of the “internal” right to change one's religion or belief. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly affirms:

“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.”

The individual's search for truth and meaning is an activity most intimately linked with the human conscience and with the desire to see the world through one's own eyes and to understand it through one's own faculties of perception and intelligence. As such, it is inextricably linked with all facets of human development.

Due to pressure from dissenting States, however, subsequent United Nations treaties have used weaker language to define this right, failing to uphold the unambiguous standard set by the Declaration.

The Human Rights Committee has identified the freedom to change religion or belief, freedom to manifest beliefs, non-coercion in matters of religion, and non-discrimination on the basis of religion as core components of this right. As signatories to the Universal Declaration and subsequent treaties and global commitments, governments bear the primary responsibility to create, safeguard, and promote the necessary conditions for the enjoyment of the freedom of conscience, religion, or belief for all of their citizens.

2) The right to teach one's religion or beliefs. Intimately connected with the freedom to hold and to change one's religion or belief is the freedom to share those beliefs with others. Within the broad range of activities potentially encompassed by the freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs, the right to teach one's religion or beliefs has been particularly contentious.

While the Declaration calls for the unconditional protection of the “internal” right to freedom of religion, the “external” right to manifest one's beliefs is subject to limitations: Governments are permitted to place restrictions on this right for purposes of “meeting the just requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society.” This has too often been abused in efforts to quell minority populations and has raised questions about what constitutes legitimate governmental interference in manifestations of religion or belief.

States argue that limiting the teaching of religions and the sharing of beliefs is necessary to preserve particular traditions and to protect the rights of the targeted populations; yet the right to freedom of religion or belief is necessarily contingent on the exposure to new ideas and the ability to share and receive information. Limitations on the basis of “maintaining public order” and “morality” have also been applied with considerable latitude and in a manner inconsistent with the principle of non-discrimination.

Non-democratic and theocratic States in particular have repeatedly issued such reservations without the burden of proof, calling into question not only their interpretation of this right but also their protection of related rights and freedoms such as the right to employment and education, and the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.

Ultimately, a long-term preventive strategy must be rooted in efforts to educate children and adults alike, equipping them with literacy skills and opportunities to learn about other systems of belief. Within a culture of education, people who can read the writings of their own religion as well as those of others, who are free to question and discuss, and who are able to participate in the generation and application of knowledge will be better prepared to counter the forces of ignorance and fanaticism.

3) Marginalized religious minorities. The challenge before States, and one of their central concerns as addressed in the Human Development Report, is the maintenance of social cohesion and national unity in the face of increasing cultural pluralism. The report cites the threats of social instability and violent protest as a primary imperative for States' need to accommodate minority claims.

States must discard outmoded notions of cultural homogeneity and ideological uniformity as a guarantor of peace and security and come to embrace a plurality of identities and beliefs.

4) The responsibilities of religious leaders. The responsibility to uphold universal principles of freedom of religion or belief also rests with religious leaders. In a world harassed by violence and conflict in the name of religion, leaders of religious communities bear tremendous responsibility for guiding their followers towards a peaceful coexistence.

Too often, those acting in the name of religion have fanned the flames of hatred and fanaticism, themselves serving as the greatest obstacles in the path of peace. Yet the religions and faiths of the world with which the majority of the earth's inhabitants stand identified have imparted a vast spiritual, moral, and civilizing legacy, which continues to succor and guide in these troubled times.

Indeed, religions have reached to the roots of human motivation to lift our vision beyond purely material conceptions of reality to embrace higher notions of justice, reconciliation, love, and selflessness in the service of the common good.

Given the weight of culture and religion in shaping motivation and behavior, it is clear that legal mechanisms alone will not engender the commitment and mutual understanding required to sustain an ethos of peaceful co-existence. The role of religious leaders as partners — in word and deed — in the promotion of respect for human dignity and freedom of conscience, religion, or belief cannot be understated.

Urgent action is now needed to reaffirm the vision of equal rights for all without discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. As a first step, the United Nations must unequivocally affirm an individual's right to change his or her religion or belief under international law.

Concrete actions — investigative, legal, and operational — must follow. Research and analysis are needed to clarify minimum standards for compliance with international law and to develop indicators marking the presence or absence of freedom of religion or belief. An annual world report prepared by the United Nations assessing the state of this freedom throughout the world would provide further substance and facilitate comparisons over time and across geographic regions.