Wednesday, 27.02

BOS 1: Addressing rising restrictions on religion: law matters!


Heiner Bielefeldt, Brian J. Grim, Trond Bakkevig, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Heidi Rautionmaa, Father Nabil Haddad

What have States to do, to uphold the universal human right of freedom of religion, thought and conscience in a context of growing diversity and pluralism? The starting point for defining the application of freedom of religion or belief must be the self- understanding of human beings – thereby, the concept of human dignity is a normative reference. Against the backdrop of signifi- cant political changes in many countries, this break-out session will also elaborate on the relationship between constitutional protections and the various dimensions of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief.

Rapporteur/Moderator: Heiner Bielefeldt

As the Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt recalls in a recent Report, the concept of human dignity has a long history and strongly resonates within most different religious, philosophical and cultural traditions. For the concept of human dignity to function as a normative reference in international human rights law, however, it is crucial to make sure that the notion of dignity is not claimed as a monopoly by any of those traditions, but rather remains open for a wide diversity of religious or philosophical readings. This openness does not mean emptiness, though. For all the different interpretations of what human dignity may signify, this concept at the time has the precise and indispensable function of reminding us of the universal nature of those basic rights to which all human beings have a claim simply because they are human beings.

The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights furthermore links the “inherent dignity” of all human beings to their “equal and inalienable rights”. Respect for human dignity thus receives institutional backing in terms of internationally binding rights. At the same time, it is this very focus on human dignity that accounts for the specific qualification of human rights as “equal and inalienable rights”. The principle of equality ultimately follows on from the axiomatic status of human dignity which does not depend on any particular qualities, talents or societal status positions that an individual may happen or not to have.

As a universal human right, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief must be interpreted strictly in keeping with the opening sentence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar provisions. Hence it is not that the State could “grant” certain individuals or groups of individuals this right. Rather, it is the other way around: the State has to respect everyone’s freedom of religion or belief as an inalienable – and thus non-negotiable – entitlement of human beings, all of whom have the status of rights holders in international law by virtue of their inherent dignity.

Therefore, the starting point for defining the application of freedom of religion or belief must be the self-understanding of human beings – all of them – in the field of religion or belief. Such self-understandings obviously can be very diverse. That is why freedom of religion or belief should be broadly construed so as to protect “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief”.

In this Session this wide understanding of the status of all human beings as rights holders by virtue of their human dignity will be discussed as the basis for outlining the appropriate scope of freedom of religion or belief. While some States seem to limit it to a given list of religious options, it should include followers of traditional and non-traditional religions or beliefs, members of large or small communities, minorities and minorities within minorities, refugees, migrant workers, converts or re-converts and dissenters or other critical voices. One must also not forget the rights of women, who continue to have only marginalized positions within many religious traditions.

Furthermore the session will also focus on the various dimensions covered by the right to manifest one’s religion or belief, as well as discrimination on the basis of religion or belief and inter-religious discriminations and tolerance issues.

Building upon the Human rights Council Resolution 16/13 of April 2011 on Freedom of religion or belief and based on the Pew Center Studies of 2009 and 2013, which show some relationship between constitutional protections for religious freedom and overall changes in government restrictions on religion, at a time when many countries are undergoing major political changes and reforming their legal framework, including the Constitutional Law, this break-out session will share best practices on upholding freedom of religion in a context of growing diversity and pluralism.