On Human Rights Day: Working for Religious Freedom for Everyone, Everywhere

December 10, 2020

Today, the world marks Human Rights Day to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ongoing efforts to realize the protection of fundamental rights around the world.  

One of those rights, increasingly under threat, is religious freedom. As documented in the latest report from the Pew Research Center, “40% of the world’s countries (80 countries overall) had ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of overall restrictions on religion” and government restrictions on religion are at an all-time high.

Why does religious freedom matter? It is connected to the core human search for answers about ultimate questions and the desire to live in accord with them. As RFI President Thomas Farr has described, religious freedom, or free exercise equality, is “the right of all persons to believe, speak, and act – individually and in community with others, in private and in public – in accord with their understanding of ultimate truth.”

Free exercise equality, due to all persons without exception, serves to uphold the exercise of many other fundamental rights and freedoms—the right to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and many others. As the scholar David Little described at an event hosted by RFI’s Center for Religious Freedom Education, freedom of religion, enshrined in Article 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, was included among the nonderogable rights, and this is of significant importance “because a key feature of arbitrary force as practiced by the fascists was the unsparing imposition by force of a specific set of beliefs on everyone under their control, meaning the persecution of all religious (and other) expressions of dissent.”

Use of coercion, including use of violent force, to impose a particular set of beliefs across society violates the spirit and letter of these historic human rights declarations. Religious freedom for people of all faiths, and none, remains a critical human right in need of protection around the world.

As I outlined in testimony before Congress in January, global challenges to religious freedom include:

1) State-led repression of religion, such as against the Uyghur Muslim community in China;

2) Non-state hostilities facilitated by inept or complicit government actors, such as Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa, most notably the violent assaults against Christians in Nigeria; and

3) Government policies and practices, such as those in Pakistan, that enable the state to act as the arbiter of “Right Religion”: Blasphemy and Apostasy Laws, which a new U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report documented in 84 countries.

What more should be done? Certainly congressional resolutions (such as H.Res 512 calling for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws) are important. And U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance has a key role to play. But a multi-faceted, global effort is necessary at this critical juncture, and international human rights day is an important opportunity to draw attention to that effort.