What is Freedom of religion or belief?
The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, often referred to as ‘religious freedom’ or most commonly as ‘freedom of religion or belief’ (FoRB), is a fundamental and universal human right articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other international human rights treaties.
FoRB is a fundamental right, as it is an essential component of the human rights framework. It is universal in that it protects all individuals, including those who hold theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as those who choose not to have any religion or belief. It protects the individual, not the belief. This right can be understood in terms of its internal or private aspect, or ‘forum internum’, and its external aspect, or ‘forum externum’.
The components of Freedom of religion or belief
According to international human rights standards everyone has the right to FoRB without discrimination on any grounds. Broadly speaking this right can be understood in terms of its internal element or ‘forum internum’ and its external element or ‘forum externum’.
A person’s right to form, to espouse and to change deeply held inner convictions and beliefs – the ‘forum internum’- enjoys absolute protection. This means that there are no circumstances under which this freedom can be justifiably violated or limited, including for reasons of national security or in an emergency.
It includes the right to form and hold opinions based on conscience, including beliefs that may be deemed objectionable, or even offensive to and by others. It protects the right to espouse a religion or belief of one’s choice, the right not to espouse a religion or belief, and the right to reject or change a religion or belief, free from coercion.
A person’s right to manifest or outwardly display a religion or belief, either alone or as part of a community, is sometimes referred to as the ‘forum externum’. This component of FoRB protects the right to manifest a religion or belief through teaching, worship, practice, and other forms of observance. This includes the right to share one's religion or belief with others, and to encourage others to adopt similar beliefs. It includes the right to publish and distribute literature and other forms of information about a religion or belief. It also includes the right to own and use buildings for worship, and to express a religion or belief through clothing, rituals, and symbols. The ‘forum externum’ component of FoRB can be limited by the government or state, but only in exceptional situations with a high threshold of evidence required by those enforcing any limitations. The UN Human Rights Committee declares that international law permits "restrictions on the freedom to manifest religion or belief only if limitations are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others".
Article 18 of the UDHR 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.”
This, along with the rest of the UDHR, and in combination with the United Nations Charter, provides the foundation for all international law and best practice associated with FoRB. Article 18 of the UDHR was further defined with the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by the UN General Assembly which together with the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) make up the International Bill of Rights. Article 18 of the ICCPR states:
"1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
4. The states parties to the present covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
FoRB is protected in a range of other international human rights treaties, including:
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, Article 14);
- The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Article 12)
- The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (UNGA, 25 November, 1981)
- The UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (UNGA, 18 December 1992)
#2 Our principles
We believe no one should suffer discrimination, harassment or persecution because of their beliefs