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Pontifical Lateran University: Address by Ms. Navanethem Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Rome, 10 March 2010

“The right to freedom of religion today – sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”

Mr. President of the Pontificia Università Lateranense,
Faculty Members and Students,
Ladies and Gentleman,

It gives me great pleasure to be here today before such a diverse audience. I understand that, for more than two centuries, the central mission of the Pontifical Lateran University has been to “bring together study and life, the search for truth and the existential experience of truth”.

Combining academic and everyday life with the search for, and experience of, truth is indeed a challenge. In my earlier career, I worked as a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and later was appointed Vice-President of the Council of the University of Durban Westville. After the end of apartheid, I served as a judge on the South African High Court, and subsequently was appointed to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court.  In those capacities, as well as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I know first hand that the quest for the truth is not only a daunting yet essential intellectual pursuit, but also an imperative practical task.  We must persist in these endeavours because the universal essence, the truth of our common humanity and of our shared aspirations resides in the pursuit of dignity and equality for all.

At the very foundation of this pursuit is the recognition that all human beings are entitled to live free from want and free from fear, free to express their opinions and free to worship according to their belief. 

These principles were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document crafted in 1948 by a diverse group of inspired drafters and now reflected in the Constitutions of more than 90 States all over the world.  Conceived in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the utter destruction of World War II, the Universal Declaration provides a clear definition of freedom of religion.  It states that such freedom includes freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance, either alone or in community with others and in private or public. Moreover, the freedom to change one’s religion or belief is also envisaged and, by extension, the freedom not to practice any religion.

Today, I will explore the meaning of the right to freedom of religion sixty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In this context, I also wish to touch upon the interdependence of religious freedom with other human rights and fundamental freedoms. Finally, I will briefly illustrate the work of various United Nations mechanisms in this field.

Let me begin by noting that the very preamble of the Universal Declaration emphasizes the consonance and the interdependence of rights and freedoms. This means that all rights and freedoms reinforce one another, while violations of one set of rights enfeeble all the other rights. Subsequent human rights jurisprudence has bolstered this conception.

Indeed, contrary to what is often purported, freedom of expression and freedom of religion are not contradictory; they are mutually dependent and reinforcing. Freedom of religion cannot exist if freedom of expression is not respected. Likewise, freedom of expression is essential to creating an environment in which a constructive—though sometimes critical—discussion about religious matters could be held. Missionary activities and other forms of propagating one’s religion are also at the intersection between freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

While human rights law allows for certain restrictions of rights and freedoms, these limitations are themselves exceptional both in nature and in circumstance. They must be determined by law and should be applied cautiously in order not to jeopardize rights.  Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that limitations may be invoked solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and general welfare in a democratic society.
Incitement to religious hatred must be proscribed. Article 20 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights explicitly states that: “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”
Hate speech, if not acted upon promptly, may create a threatening and discriminating context for the followers of the targeted religion who, consequently, may become afraid to openly express their beliefs.  However, remarks that criticize interpretations of religions or beliefs, even vehemently, do not automatically constitute incitement to religious hatred.  Every case must be examined on its own circumstances and specific context.

In addition, there is the risk that national laws against hate speech can be interpreted loosely or applied selectively.  In practice, many members of religious minorities suffer from arbitrary implementation of domestic laws, for example by police officers or local authorities.  This problem underlines the need of devising effective safeguards against abuses of the law.  Of particular importance is the existence of a fully independent judiciary which is fundamental to check the potential for government abuse and to redress violations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In our era of deepening interaction and mutual learning among people of different origins, and in a context of heightened political awareness and civic activism around the world, common strategies are most effectively pursued when anchored in the protection and promotion of universal human rights without discrimination of any kind.   This noted, I hasten to add that such growing and ultimately enriching variety of backgrounds merging in communities around the world--physically or virtually through modern technology--also presents a mounting challenge to States, as they seek to promote and ensure mutual respect, social harmony, equal opportunity and fairness of treatment for all.

Regrettably, those that are identified as the “others”—particularly migrant workers—are also and all too often perceived as predatory competitors, or insidious proselytizers rather than as additional contributors of talent, hard work, and ingenuity to the wealth, welfare and culture of receiving communities.

Moreover, the response of many countries to legitimate security concerns in the context of the fight against terrorism has had a negative and disproportionate impact on minorities leading to instances of stigmatization of some vulnerable groups along divides of origin and religion.

Against this background, the demarcation between freedom of expression and hate speech, especially in relation to religious issues, has come increasingly under focus and has permeated debates at international human rights fora, as well as created friction among diverse communities.

To clarify such demarcation, my Office will soon hold a series of expert workshops to examine legislation, judicial practices and national policies in different regions. This will also help ensure full compliance with the prohibition of incitement to hatred, while respecting freedom of expression.

Regrettably, all too often misinterpretations and ensuing frictions rather than the many situations of peaceful and mutually reinvigorating coexistence capture headlines.

Although it is disheartening to read or hear almost daily accounts of religious intolerance, discrimination or even persecution all over the world, we must never give in to impotence or simply exonerate ourselves from action.  Communities next to us may be affected.  Their plight today can become our suffering tomorrow.  The latest report of Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir, the highly respected  independent expert on freedom of religion or belief, details allegations of human rights violations against Bahá’ís, Buddhists, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and members of other religious or belief communities.

She observed that children, women and converts are often targeted by discrimination or violence on the grounds or in the name of religion or belief. Children have been indoctrinated with religious intolerance and are used by non-State actors for abhorrent purposes, such as suicide attacks.  Women are openly discriminated against in some domestic laws, for example, in the field of personal status legislation which is linked to religious affiliation.  Individuals who have changed their religion continue to be threatened by non-State actors and sometimes even by State authorities.

Let me take this opportunity to note that, tomorrow morning, the Human Rights Council, the pre-eminent intergovernmental human right body, will hold a discussion with Special Rapporteur Jahangir on these themes.  You may follow her presentation and the discussion in Geneva online via our webcast, which is available as live and archived videos on the Council’s homepage (www.un.org/webcast/unhrc).
The Human Rights Council has asked the Special Rapporteur to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and to present her recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.

My Office supports the work of the Special Rapporteur, as well as the activities of the treaty bodies, the committees that monitor the implementation of international human rights treaties.  For example, the Human Rights Committee, which oversees the implementation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, deals with religious freedom in its concluding observations and it issues views on individual complaints when considering State reports. Last year, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the treaty body attached to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted a general comment on “Non-Discrimination in Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” which included a reference to the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination systematically raises the interrelated nature of racial and religious discrimination.

In the United Nations system, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Human Rights Council, which involves an assessment of the human rights record of all UN Member States at regular intervals, is another avenue for addressing issues of religious freedom.  Since the UPR’s inception in 2008, religious freedom issues came up in reports or discussions regarding 88 out of the 112 countries reviewed so far. This fact shows that religious matters are of concern worldwide.

Furthermore, several UN entities are involved in activities fostering interreligious and intercultural dialogue.  These include UNESCO, the United Nations Population Fund and UNAIDS.  The General Assembly has held high-level meetings on interreligious and intercultural understanding and cooperation for peace.  The United Nations has also made 2010 the International Year on the Rapprochement of Cultures.  To this end, a variety of initiatives are in the pipeline, so please stay tuned. 

Let me also draw your attention to another meritorious initiative of the UN Secretary-General, namely the Alliance of Civilizations, which was created with the two-pronged purpose of fostering understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions, and of countering the forces that fuel polarization and extremism.  The Secretariat of the Alliance of Civilizations works in partnership with various stakeholders to mobilize concerted efforts to promote cross-cultural relations among diverse nations and communities.  The Alliance of Civilizations supports projects in the areas of youth, media, education and migration.

Crucially, a year ago, the review conference of the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance reached agreement on a document which is of great relevance to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, as well as to the peaceful coexistence of diverse communities. The document reaffirms the fundamental importance of freedom of expression and stresses its compatibility with existing international law that prohibits incitement to hatred. This should help bridge the artificial divide on sensitive issues related to religions which could fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy of clashes of civilizations.

The initiatives I just mentioned show that a number of mechanisms are already in place at the international level to address religious freedom and foster interreligious dialogue.  It  is vital that religious issues are not used to fuel discrimination and violence, but rather to unite people and communities.  In this context, religious leaders should help find solutions for problems which affect all individuals, irrespective of their religion or belief.

The wealth of diversity that we are fortunate to experience today should be reflected in religious thinking itself, as both a challenge and an opportunity to promote harmonious social interactions. It is also important to protect the rights of atheists, non-theists or dissenting believers. In this context, we should be mindful that individuals belonging to a majority religion in a given country are not always free from pressure to adhere to a certain interpretation of that religion. Their freedoms of expression and religion must also be protected by creating an environment conducive to frankness and debate, rather than imposed conformism.

Distinguished Faculty, Dear Students,

Let me reiterate that human rights are universal and deeply rooted in all civilizations and cultures. They are neither the product nor the exclusive preserve of specific doctrines, religions or traditions.

It is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and religious backgrounds, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. In addition, it is incumbent upon all of us to promote tolerance to foster understanding for diversity so that even contrasting views and convictions can be freely and respectfully expressed in the public arena.

We should not concede ground to those who are intent on stirring controversy that contributes to intolerance.   All of us, men and women of good will, States, international organizations, scholars and civil society alike must not get distracted from our main objective: to nurture a world of tolerance and mutual respect, to end discrimination and embrace diversity.

Thank you very much for your attention.