Human Rights and Religion

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HUMAN RIGHTS AND RELIGION . Human rights are a secular, supposedly normative (because often defined as "universal") doctrine of ethical behavior embedded in national, regional, and international systems of law under the authority of the United Nations (UN) and implemented with varying degrees of success and failure. Indicative of the enhanced role of religion in global politics, the relationship between religion and human rights remains complex and diverse, covering a variety of ever-fluctuating geopolitical situations.

Universal Human Rights

The 1945 Charter of the United Nations sets out basic principles upon which international legal standards have been developed. On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, thirty articles that remain fundamental for all subsequent covenants, conventions, and treaties in the field. The preamble to the declaration states that the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world." The preamble also recognizes that "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." It hopes for "the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want," proclaimed as "the highest aspiration of the common people."

From these aspirations arose the International Bill of Human Rights, which is a collection of five documents, consisting of:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 1948)
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (December 16, 1966; into effect January 3, 1976)
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (December 16, 1966; into effect March 23, 1976)
  • Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (December 16, 1966; into effect March 23, 1976)
  • Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty (December 15, 1989)

Given how wide-ranging the statement of human rights isfrom basic civil and democratic political freedoms to rights in education, employment, and healthit is not surprising that in an effort to make social progress through subsequent human rights work, the nature and extent of the rights framework has become extremely complex, not to say controversial.

Religion and Politics

The immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War was a time of ideological triumphalism. If Western models of governance based upon democracy and universal human rights had seemingly come out victorious from a struggle against Soviet Communism, then books such as The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington controversially revitalized an ancient notion that differing value systems will inevitably come into conflict. Some people, such as Francis Fukuyama, suggested that Western models of governance based on democracy and universal human rights had triumphed, receiving collective recognition as the best political system the world had yet produced. This new international consensus over political values demonstrated, according to Fukuyama, nothing less than an end of history. According to this analysis, if secularization theory has widely predicted the marginalization of religion to a private domain rather than a sphere of public influence, then religion simply did not come into the equation to any significant degree.

Arguably more astute commentators were beginning to suggest that the end of the Cold War might mean something differentwhat significant scholars of religion had always argued: that the place of religion in world politics had in the modern era been seriously underplayed. In The World's Religions, Ninian Smart, foremost among such scholars, argued for the relevance of religion in a number of dimensions. While this might be expected from a scholar of religion, such a notion, unfashionable for so long outside religious studies, came to take on importance in politics and sociology. Jeff Haynes's analysis of religion in world politics builds on Jose Casanova's foundational theoretical work in sociology.

Casanova's Public Religions in the Modern World began seriously to challenge the largely accepted secularization thesis, that in modern societies religion becomes less and less relevant to public discourse, and any influence it might have would be relegated to people's private lives. Both Haynes and Casanova demonstrated from a series of geopolitical case studies how the secularization thesis was no longer supportable or at least presented evidence that it needed to be refined to explain how religious traditions were gaining an increasingly public profile, from the rise of Islam in political contexts across innumerable states to increasing conflicts between cultural and religious traditions, notably in Africa, Asia, and the former Soviet Union.

Religion and Human Rights

Since the formation of the United Nations, human rights issues related to religion and belief have been the focus of several international instruments:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
  • The Arcot Krishnaswami Study (1959)
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
  • The International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights (1966)
  • The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a number of articles of relevance to freedom of religion and belief. These include Article 2 (forbidding prejudicial distinctions of any kind, including those related to religion) and Article 26 (on the rights to a particular religious education). The foundation stone of freedom of religion and belief, though, is found in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This states, "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."

Nathan Lerner in Religion, Beliefs, and International Human Rights offers one of the most authoritative commentaries on religion in the UN system. As Lerner suggests, Article 18 greatly influenced the texts incorporated in the 1966 covenants and was influential in regional treaties and the 1981 declaration. Some key international legal standards relating to freedom of religion and belief include:

  • Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (November 25, 1981);
  • Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities (December 18, 1992);
  • Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion and Belief (1998);
  • World Conference against Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Forms of Discrimination (September 2002).

The preamble to the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981) restates the wider context of the charter of the United Nations. Notably this reiterates the "dignity and equality inherent in all human beings," international commitment on the promotion of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, "without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion," and the principles of "nondiscrimination and equality before the law and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief."

Issues of religion have increasingly come to the fore in a United Nations formally cautious about being explicit about arguably the most contentious of all human rights, while an increasingly intense postSeptember 11 context has highlighted the issue of potential violent conflict in the world. The wider significance of these issues might be summarized by four points. First, after a long neglect (or low-level treatment) of religion explicitly, the UN system from the late 1970s and especially with the 1981 declaration began to recognize the international significance of religion for a stable world order.

During the 1990s religion emerged explicitly in numerous international statements, gaining a new and unprecedented prominence. These included the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990) and the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel (1993). The Vienna Declaration and Plan of Action (1993) and the follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights, the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (1993), also gave some prominence to freedom of culture and religion, an important development given the respective post-Yugoslavia and post-Rwanda contexts. The new prominence given to religion culminated in the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion and Belief (1998).

Second, and indicated by both the 1981 declaration and the 1998 Oslo declaration, the notion of freedom of religion was itself extended to freedom of religion and belief to allow for a wider interpretation of worldviews. Third, this in turn has had the effect of linking issues such as "freedom of thought, conscience, and religion" to what Carl Wellman in

Mass Slaughter Since the 1948 Convention Against Genocide

(Ryan, in Gearon, 2002)
19431957USSRChechens, Ingushi, Karachai230,000
194468USSRCrimean Tartars, Meskhetians57,000175,000
195577ChinaTibetansNot available
195975IraqKurdsNot available
196272ParaguayAche Indians90,000
1963LaosMeo Tribesmen18,00020,000
196566IndonesiaChinese500,0001 million
1966NigeriaIbos in North9,00030,000
Equatorial Guinea
Bubi Tribe
1971PakistanBengalis of EasternPakistan1.253 million
Acholi, Lango
197579CambodiaIncluding Muslim Cham2 million?
197598IndonesiaEast Timorese60,000200,000
1978BurmaMuslims in border regionsNot available
197986UgandaKaramanjong, Nilotic Tribes
1981IranKurds, Bahais10,00020,000
19837Sri LankaTamils2,00010,000
19925BosniaHerzegovinaMainly Bosnian Muslims200,000

The Proliferation of Rights has called rights of human solidarity, notable in connections publicly made between religious intolerance and the ending of racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. For example, the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was followed just over a decade later by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities (1992).

Fourth, also related to Wellman's notion of human solidarity are the rights affecting particular groups of the world's population, including children and indigenous peoples. In terms of religion and human rights, the major issue here is women and human rights in the world's religions. The prominent and influential World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. The resulting Beijing declaration was careful to set the event in the context of other conferences. Cited conferences included those on women in Nairobi in 1985, on children in New York in 1990, on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, on human rights in Vienna in 1993, on population and development in Cairo in 1994, and on social development in Copenhagen in 1995. Convinced that "women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace," commitments made by the Beijing declaration included (1) full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child "as an inalienable, integral, and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms" and (2) the empowerment and advancement of women, "including the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief."

Tensions in Equality: Theoretic Equality versus Factual Inequality

Heightened emphasis upon religion and culture in international relations shows a world that continues to reflect considerable tensions between worldviews when dealing with ideals such as human rights. These tensions are of four kinds: first, between between particular cultural and especially religious systems and the notion of universal human rights; second, between religious traditions and different culture's worldviews; within and between human rights themselves; and between a stated universality of rights and factual inequality in their distribution.

Human rights

There are tensions between particular cultural and especially religious systems and the notion of universal human rights. Examples include the right to freedom of expression that might give offense to some religious sensibility or the tension between democratic political systems and religiously inspired systems of governance or, and perhaps especially, issues of universal rights between men and women. Most critically on December 18, 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the UN General Assembly. It entered into force as an international treaty on September 3, 1981.

While marking significant progress and the culmination of three decades of work by the UN Commission on the Status of Women (established 1946), the Beijing and Beijing +5 meetings show that the equal status of women remains in many countries and cultures a distant ideal, despite the fact that basic equality in human rights was fundamental to the UN charter and the Universal Declaration. The convention states that discrimination against women is extensive and details the areas (health, education, employment, and legal and political status) where progress needs to be made. The convention also devotes much time to reproductive rights, issues around maternity, and rights centered on marriage. Of general importance is the disparity between the UN definitions of women's rights and those perceived within certain cultural and religious traditions. In reality each religion will address particular issues of integrating or rejecting women's rights within their respective traditions. And these will be tempered by political circumstances.

For political case studies on women's rights, major nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the field, like Human Rights Watch, often focus on similar specific issues. Human Rights Watch has continually updated studies of each of the world's geographical regions. In general the legal difficulties in combining the equalities, rights, and freedoms of religion with the equalities, rights, and freedoms of women are real, representing arguably the most significant tension between international systems of human rights and religious traditions. On the technical legal side of such matters, Kelly D. Askin and Dorean M. Koenig's Women and International Human Rights Law (1999) is certainly worth consulting.


There are tensions between religious traditions and different culture's worldviews. Religious, cultural, and ethnic differences remain the major source of conflict in a postCold War world. After two world wars and with a clear awareness of the systematic mass murders of the Holocaust, the 1948 Genocide Convention was born out of a never-again mentality. Since then genocide, defined here as the systematic and deliberate targeting for extinction of particular sections of a population, has happened repeatedly. Genocide in the twentieth century became fundamental to human rights discourse in the twenty-first century.

Between rights themselves

There are tensions within and between human rights themselves, for example, between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. Here the conflict between religious traditions and universal human rights contributes to these tensions between rights that seem to compete rather than be complementary.

Stated universality and factual inequality

A wider tension exists between a stated universality of rights and factual inequality. The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights attempted to address this with the Vienna Plan of Action. Priorities for the global implementation of human rights were listed and, as with the majority of UN world conferences, a five-year review was planned. The UN commissioner for human rights concludes his Vienna +5 review with this paragraph:

The international community must conclude that five years after Vienna, a wide gap continues to exist between the promise of human rights and their reality in the lives of people throughout the world. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, making all human rights a reality for all remains not only our fundamental challenge but our solemn responsibility.

In the UN system, human rights imply universality. Yet human values are by their nature contested, and history reveals a tragically imperfect world where inequalities abound and justice is too often absent. The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna expressed "its dismay and condemnation that gross and systematic violations and situations that constitute serious obstacles to the full enjoyment of all human rights continue to occur in different parts of the world." It is this most fundamental sense of inequalityover and above differences between religious traditions and secular notions of human rightsthat arguably presents the greatest cause of conflict the world over. As Albert Camus once remarked, "The spirit of revolt can only exist where a theoretic equality conceals great factual inequalities."


Many nation-states now regard issues of religion and human rights as essential barometers of wider democratic freedoms. In the United States, for example, the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act made it a requirement for the U.S. secretary of state to publish an annual report on religious freedom worldwide. Published each September, the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom is submitted to the Committee on International Relations in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations in the U.S. Senate. The report is extensive and provides country-by-country accounts of religious freedoms and infringements on and improvements in these freedoms. The report contains an extremely useful executive summary and clearly links freedom of religion with the likelihood that countries that preserve this right will respect other fundamental rights.

See Also

Law and Religion, article on Law, Religion, and Human Rights.


Askin, Kelly D., and Dorean M. Koenig, eds. Women and International Human Rights Law. Ardsley, N.Y., 1999. Courtney W. Howland's article "Women and Religious Fundamentalism" is particularly pertinent.

Blaustein, Albert P., Roger S. Clark, and Jay A. Sigler, eds. Human Rights Source Book. New York, 1987.

Bloom, Irene, J. Paul Martin, and Wayne L. Proudfoot, eds. Religious Diversity and Human Rights. New York, 2000. One of a number of authoritative publications coming from the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.

Casanova, Jose. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago, 1994. A foundational challenge to secularization theory.

Forsythe, David P. Human Rights in International Relations. 3d ed. Cambridge, U.K., 2000. An excellent single volume on the development of human rights in global political context.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. London, 1992. A contentious and highly influential postCold War analysis of the supremacy of liberal, democratic governance.

Gearon, Liam. The Human Rights Handbook: A Global Perspective for Education. Stoke-on-Trent, U.K., 2003. Among the most accessible guides to international human rights for the nonspecialist reader.

Gearon, Liam, ed. Human Rights and Religion: A Reader. Brighton, U.K., 2002. Defined by some as the standard collection in the field of religion and human rights, distinguished for its combination of academic reflections across a full range of world religions combined with geopolitical case studies.

Harvard Human Rights Journal. Religion, Democracy, and Human Rights. Special Issue, 2003. Available at

Haynes, Jeff. "Religion." In Issues in World Politics, edited by Brian White, Richard Little, and Michael Smith. 2d ed. London, 2001. A great, short introduction to religion in world politics by a writer who came to the subject long before September 11.

Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations. New York, 1993. Still reverberating as a sound bite.

Küng, Hans, and Helmut Schmidt, eds. "The Declaration of the Parliament of the World's Religions." In A Global Ethic and Global Responsibilities: Two Declarations. London, 1998. A contentious attempt to map religious and secular ethical frameworks.

Lerner, Nathan. Religion, Beliefs, and International Human Rights. New York, 2000. A standard work on religious human rights from an international legal perspective.

Lindholm, Tore, Bahia Tahzib-Lie, and W. Cole Durham Jr., eds. Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Deskbook. Leiden and Boston, 2004. Arising from the work of the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, an authoritative, wide-ranging and highly useful text.

Marshall, Paul, ed. Religious Freedom in the World: A Global Report on Freedom and Persecution. London, 2000. An outstanding survey from Freedom House edited by one of the world's leading authorities.

Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics. Oxford, 1999. One of the most authoritative voices on Islam and human rights.

Novak, David. Covenantal Rights. Princeton, N.J., 2000. A systematic philosophical analysis on human rights.

Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York, 2002. Essential reading on genocide in the twentieth century; much more than a book on American foreign policy. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize.

Runzo, Joseph, Nancy M. Martin, and Arvind Sharma, eds. Human Rights and Responsibilities in the Worlds Religions. Oxford, 2002. Balances notions of rights with ethical and moral responsibility.

Ryan, Stephen. The United Nations and International Politics. London, 2000. An engaging and readable general account of the successes and failings of the UN.

Smart, Ninian. The World's Religions. Cambridge, U.K., 1989. A classic work updated and significantly reworked.

Stahnke, Tad, and J. Paul Martin, eds. Religion and Human Rights: Basic Documents. New York, 1998. A useful selection of documents from the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.

Villa-Vincencio, Charles. A Theology of Reconstruction: Nation Building and Human Rights. Cambridge, U.K., 1999. Despite a seemingly narrow title, this book remains one of the best available single volumes tracing the similarities and differences in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian traditions in relation to human rights.

Wellman, Carl. The Proliferation of Rights: Moral Progress or Empty Rhetoric? Oxford, 2000. A sceptical legal-philosophical voice presenting some critical insights into perceived theoretical failings of burgeoning "generations" of rights.

Liam Gearon (2005)

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