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International Freedom of Religion or Belief Alliance Ministers’ Forum
40th Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief


Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

23 November 2021

Excellencies, Friends,

I am delighted to participate in this event hosted by the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Alliance Ministers' Forum.

Today we commemorate and reflect upon the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, which was adopted forty years ago.

It took almost twenty years of negotiation – "a road that was long, ardous and full of obstacles", in the words of the Dutch representative in the General Assembly at the time. The adoption of the Declaration on 25 November 1981, without a vote, was considered "a victory", according to Bahia Tahzib-Lie, who is now Human Rights Ambassador at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Many diplomats, UN human rights bodies and faith-based actors played an important role in shaping the 1981 Declaration.

Already in 1960, Special Rapporteur Krishnaswami from India had drafted 16 Basic Rules in his study for the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.

The Senegalese diplomat Abdoulaye Dieye chaired the Working Group which finalized the Declaration, while he was also a member of the UN Human Rights Committee.

And the result of their work is not only clear and principled – it is deeply relevant today. The Declaration has positively influenced legal agreements at the international, regional and national levels.

They include the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and the Beirut Declaration on "Faith for Rights" – which emphasises that article 2 of the 1981 Declaration establishes direct responsibilities of religious institutions, leaders and even every individual within belief communities.

The 1986 Concluding Document of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe quoted multiple elements from article 6 of the 1981 Declaration. Some constitutions and national laws have also been clearly influenced by this list of substantive rights. In Australia, the Human Rights Commission is mandated to look into complaints about practices or acts by the Commonwealth that are inconsistent with the 1981 Declaration.

This leads me to the practical challenge of implementing the Declaration, and monitoring intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.

We will hear today from Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. He and his predecessors have examined many incidents and recommended remedial measures. In fact, since 1986 they have sent more than 1,800 letters and urgent appeals to more than 130 Governments and more than 170 other actors, including corporations.

In their mission reports and communications, Special Rapporteurs have used the 1981 Declaration as a substantive argument with States and de facto authorities, notably in protracted conflicts.

Unfortunately, intolerance and discrimination in matters of religion or belief is still rampant in every region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been fuelled by discrimination – including on the basis of religion or belief. Communities that are burdened with systemic and long-standing discrimination have suffered disproportionate deaths, as well as far greater socio-economic impacts.

The pandemic is also further exacerbating both discrimination and intolerance, as people, nourished by conspiracy theories, look for scapegoats.

This harms all of us. Discrimination and intolerance constitute terrible and comprehensive violations of the rights of individuals who are targeted. They are also a major obstacle to development. They weaken all of society.

Human rights law does not permit derogating from freedom of religion or belief under any circumstances. States must take steps to ensure that at all times, public discourse does not constitute incitement to hatred against any group.

But in this pandemic era, online hate speech seems especially aimed at minority communities. My Office has been collaborating with social media companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to encourage effective and principled responses. The Facebook Oversight Board has used the threshold test of our Rabat Plan of Action in several decisions in 2021, and also explicitly referred to general comments by treaty bodies, reports by Special Rapporteurs and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

We have also been engaging with religious leaders and faith-based actors on relevant issues, using the "Faith for Rights" framework and the interactive peer-to-peer learning methodology of the #Faith4Rights toolkit.

Forty years ago, the international community expressed its resolve "to adopt all necessary measures for the speedy elimination of such intolerance in all its forms and manifestations and to prevent and combat discrimination on the ground of religion or belief".

Far more needs to be done to advance this work. The spectre of rising hatred on the basis of religion or belief should alarm everyone. No bigotry of this kind is acceptable, and I hope all of us can use this anniversary as a rallying cry and an opportunity to strengthen our efforts.

Thank you