Freedom of Religion

Religious freedom is a matter of human dignity, says new UN Special Rapporteur

In Brief: 
  • The new UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief said he strongly supports individual human rights, which are a matter of human dignity
  • Dr. Heiner Bielefelt, a German academic and specialist in human rights politics, introduced himself to the UN community in October
  • Among other things, he said that freedom of religion or belief has a broad scope of application, because of its universal nature

UNITED NATIONS —Should criticism of religions be banned as hate speech? Can a country prevent its citizens from freely changing religion? Can a minority faith build a place of worship wherever it chooses?

These are among the questions that make up today’s global discourse about religious freedom.

In October, the UN’s newly appointed Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief — set out his thoughts, underscoring the importance of protecting individual human rights.

Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt formally introduced himself at the UN in New York on 21 October, in an interactive dialogue with the General Assembly. The following day, he held an introductory briefing for a group composed largely of non-governmental organizations, held in the New York offices of the Bahá’í International Community.

A German university professor with widely acknowledged expertise in issues of religious freedom and public policy, Dr. Bielefeldt told members of the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee that freedom of religion or belief stands as a fundamental human right, related to the “inherent dignity” of all human beings — and that it cannot be taken away by anyone.

“Human dignity is neither an ascribed societal status, nor a privilege granted by Governments. It does not derive from social agreements, nor can it be made dependent on membership within a particular group of people,” said Dr. Bielefeldt to the Third Committee, which oversees human rights for the General Assembly.

“Human dignity is neither an ascribed societal status, nor a privilege granted by Governments. It does not derive from social agreements, nor can it be made dependent on membership within a particular group of people.”

— Heiner Bielefeldt

The concept of human dignity and its inalienable nature is spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said. But it is also a concept that “resonates strongly in religious or philosophical traditions, across regional and cultural boundaries.”

“As a consequence of its universalistic nature as a human right, freedom of religion or belief has a broad scope of application,” he said.

In addition to protecting the right of everyone to profess a belief — or no belief at all — it also protects “members of newly established communities, minority groups as well as minorities within minorities.”

Dr. Bielefeldt said that governments have a strong obligation to protect the individual right to freedom of religion or belief, which also extends to the individual’s right to “change” one’s belief — something prohibited in some countries.

“Protection must also be accorded to those who have exercised, or wish to exercise, their right to change one’s religious affiliation, which constitutes an inherent and essential part of everyone’s freedom of religion or belief,” he said.

He also said international law supports the right of religious communities to build places of worship where they reasonably choose.

In taking up his post on 1 August 2010, Dr. Bielefeldt essentially became the UN’s chief expert on the issue of religious freedom. He will be expected to issue annual reports on the state of such freedom in the world, as well as periodic reports about the particular situation in various countries.

“The reports by the Special Rapporteur are not binding in any way, but they inform international legal opinion,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations. “These opinions then influence UN resolution and international treaties.”

“Dr. Bielefeldt has started out by clearly setting out what he sees as the issues of religious freedom that are at stake, and to articulate how he intends to approach them,” said Ms. Dugal, who is also president of the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief in New York, which sponsored the briefing.

Dr. Bielefeldt also told the group that he intends to work closely with other UN Special Rapporteurs, such as those who are concerned with racism and freedom of expression.

“Some of the resentment, some of the discrimination that takes place against religious minorities has a very strong similarity to ethnic or racial discrimination,” he said. “But on the conceptual level, it must be very clear that religion is not some sort of ethnic issue…like the color of skin.”

If that happens, he said, “an important, an essential element of choice, the search for meaning, is actually lost.”

Dr. Bielefeldt was appointed to the position of Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief on 18 June 2010 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. His mandate extends for a term of three years, and is once renewable.

Dr. Bielefeldt, 52, succeeds Pakistani human rights lawyer, Asma Jahangir, who held the position for six years prior to Dr. Bielefeldt’s appointment.

A professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, Dr. Bielefelt was also previously the director of the German Institute for Human Rights from 2003 to 2009. He has also held positions at the University of Toronto, the University of Heidelberg, and the University of Mannheim. He holds a PhD in Philosophy, obtained from the University of Tübingen in 1989. He has also undertaken studies in history and Catholic theology.