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Statement by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, during the 67th session of the General Assembly in New York

Third Committee
Item 70 (b)

New York, 25 October 2012

Honourable Chair, Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a privilege to be here for my annual interactive dialogue with you on issues relating to my mandate as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The thematic focus of my interim report is on the right to conversion. I have divided my observations in this broad field into four subcategories: (1) the right to conversion (in the sense of changing one’s own religion or belief); (2) the right not to be forced to convert; (3) the right to try to convert others by means of non-coercive persuasion; and (4) the rights of the child and of his or her parents in this regard. It is important to distinguish these dimensions since they differ concerning the precise contents and degrees of legal protection attached to them under international human rights law.

(1) Article 18 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) includes every human being’s “freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his [or her] choice”. In addition, article 18 (2) states that “[n]o one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his [or her] freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice”. In its General Comment No. 22 (1993), the Human Rights Committee interprets the “have or adopt” formulation of the ICCPR to include the right to conversion. Moreover, it is generally agreed that within the ambit of freedom of religion or belief the forum internum, i.e. the internal dimension of a person’s religious or belief related conviction, enjoys absolute protection. Consequently, the right to conversion (in the sense of changing one’s own religion or belief) has the rank of an absolutely protected right within freedom of religion or belief and does not permit any limitations or restrictions for whatever reasons.

(2) The right not to be forced to convert (or re-convert) also falls within the ambit of the forum internum. It is already implied in the right to conversion itself which, as a right to freedom, necessarily means voluntary, for example non-coerced conversion. States have an obligation to ensure that the specific authority of State agents and State institutions is not used to coerce people to convert or re-convert. The right not to be forced to convert is also relevant with regard to non-State actors or to third parties, such as private individuals or organizations. If individuals or organizations try to convert people by resorting to means of coercion or by directly exploiting situations of particular vulnerability, States’ protection against such practices may prove necessary. However, restrictive measures only may be justified if they strictly meet all the criteria laid down in article 18 (3) of the ICCPR.

(3) Freedom of religion or belief is not confined to the dimension of a person’s forum internum but also includes the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in external acts, such as “worship, observance, practice and teaching”. This also covers non-coercive attempts to persuade others, since freedom of religion or belief has a strong communicative dimension. Unlike the forum internum dimension, manifestations of one’s religion or belief in the forum externum do not enjoy absolute protection. However, the decisive point in international human rights law is that the burden of proof always falls on those who argue on behalf of restrictions, not on those who defend a right to freedom. Moreover, any restrictions deemed necessary must meet all the criteria laid down in article 18 (3) of the ICCPR. Accordingly, limitations imposed on the right to try to convert others require a legal basis, they must pursue one of the legitimate aims exhaustively listed in article 18 (3), they should be clearly and narrowly defined, they must be proportionate and they should not be implemented in a discriminatory manner.

(4) Pursuant to article 18 (4) of the ICCPR, States Parties 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”. At the same time, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recalls that parents’ rights must always be seen in conjunction with the human rights of the child. There can be no question that these provisions also apply to the right of conversion and its correlate, i.e. the right not to be forced to convert or re-convert. Thus converts have the right that their new religious or belief affiliation is also respected in the religious upbringing of their children, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.

The General Assembly has repeatedly and by consensus urged States to ensure that their constitutional and legislative systems provide adequate and effective guarantees of freedom of religion or belief to all without distinction, inter alia, by providing access to justice and effective remedies in cases where the right to freedom of religion or belief or the right to freely practise one’s religion, including the right to change one’s religion or belief, is violated. However, in my work as Special Rapporteur I receive numerous reports of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief in the broad area of conversion.

Apart from being exposed to manifestations of social pressure, public contempt and systematic discrimination, converts often face insurmountable administrative obstacles when trying to live in conformity with their convictions. Moreover, in quite a number of countries, they run the risk of losing jobs and opportunities of education, of having their marriages nullified, being excluded from the right to inheritance or even losing the custody of their children. In some States converts may also face criminal prosecution. Serious violations also occur concerning the right not to be forced to convert against one’s will. Members of religious or belief minorities often experience pressure to join a religion or belief deemed more “acceptable” in society. Abuses in this area can be undertaken both by Government agencies and by non-State actors. Specific pressure or threats are also experienced by women, sometimes in the context of marriages or marriage negotiations, to convert to the religion of their husbands or prospective husbands. In addition, many States impose tight legislative or administrative restrictions on communicative outreach activities. This may unduly limit the right to try to convert others by means of non-coercive persuasion. Moreover, many such restrictions are conceptualized and implemented in a discriminatory manner, for instance, in the interest of further strengthening the position of the official religion or dominant religion of the country while further marginalising the situation of minorities. I have also received reports about repressive means targeting children of converts or religious minorities, including with the purpose of exercising pressure on them and their parents to re-convert to their previous religion.

Under international human rights law, States are obliged consistently to respect, protect and promote the human right to freedom of religion or belief. My report contains a list of recommendations concerning legislation, administration, school education and other areas, with the purpose of ensuring respect for the dignity and freedom of all human beings, including converts or those trying to covert others by means of peaceful persuasion.

I thank you for your attention.