25 November is the anniversary of the United Nations « Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. » The Declaration was proclaimed on 25 November 1981 and began by stating “Considering that one of the 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 and observation of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”
The Declaration took nearly 20 years of difficult negotiations to draft. Preparation of the declaration began in 1962 and the Declaration was proclaimed in November 1981. Originally, negotiators at the UN had thought of drafting a single text which would have included the elimination of discrimination based on race, sex, and religion. However, there was too great a diversity of views. It was easier to deal with race because in the 1960s and 1970s in UN circles “race” was only the Apartheid policy of South Africa which everyone was, at least verbally, against.
Religion and belief were more difficult questions. The defense of spiritual liberty has been one of the most persistent of struggles, and there is no area of the world that does not have its martyrs to the cause. The struggle has often been against religious authorities who have wanted to maintain their faith within narrow limits claiming that they alone held the truth. It is significant that the words “dogmatic” “sectarian” and “inquisition” —all arise from the religious vocabulary. The stoning of the prophets and the auto-da-fe have been the answers of religious authorities — and often ordinary believers as well — to new ideas. Today, in most parts of the world, religious organizations can no longer put heretics to death. Now, religious organizations can only try to marginalize those who hold new ideas or to excommunicate them. However, as we see with the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against the Yezidi, the Christians and other religious minorities, the spirit of the inquisition can return if the context is favorable.
If religious organizations are usually no longer able to put to death heretics, the State has taken over the task of establishing orthodoxy and putting heretics to death. Although today, governments are the prime agents of repression against the spiritual life, governments are also timidly building the defenses of spiritual liberty.
The Declaration of 25 November 1981 builds upon Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “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.” There can be no doubt that freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is of a fundamental character and derives from the inherent dignity and worth of the human person.
One of the most difficult areas in drafting the Declaration concerned the rights of the child to have “access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.” The Declaration went on to state “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, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his follow men.”
Despite the rather undramatic title of the Declaration, it is a cornerstone in the defense of spiritual liberty. Thanks to the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, we who work for a world of understanding and solidarity have a UN text on which to base our efforts to defend spiritual liberty. Its anniversary should remind us of the important tool we have at hand.
First published by the Partner Ovi