by Felix Corley and Erika Cuneo, Keston News Service

Fifty years ago this week_on 10 December 1948 -- the then 58 members

of the two-year-old United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration

of Human Rights. Official observances culminate this week in

ceremonies Tuesday in Paris and Thursday in New York with world

leaders. Included in the declaration was a firm commitment to

religious freedom, enshrined in Article 18:

"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."

The document's 30 articles are not legally binding. But experts agree

the declaration's enumeration of the rights every person is entitled

to from birth has led to, in the words of one rights monitor, a

"transformation in the way that governments are expected to treat

their people and each other."

The Declaration served as the inspiration and model for further human

rights instruments adopted by the United Nations and opened for

signature by individual states. The International Covenant on Civil

and Political Rights (ICCPR), approved by the United Nations General

Assembly in December 1966, spelled out similar commitments to

religious freedom in its Article 18.

The 1975 Helsinki Final Act committed states to "respect human rights

and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought,

conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to

race, sex, language or religion," adding that "participating States

will recognise and respect the freedom of the individual to profess

and practise, alone or in community with others, religion or belief

acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience."

In November 1981 the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on

the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination

Based on Religion or Belief.

As human rights law developed, further clarifications were produced

spelling out in more detail participating states' commitments. In

July 1993 the UN Human Rights Committee issued a detailed

amplification of Article 18 of the ICCPR.

The UN now has a Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (founded as

the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) also takes a

close interest in religious freedom. Many of its declarations include

a commitment to freedom of religion. Compliance with such commitments

is monitored through its Warsaw-based Office for Democratic

Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

In the past three years, Keston Institute has represented and advised

the British Foreign Office about freedom of religion in Eastern

Europe at OSCE -ODIHR meetings in Warsaw and has similarly briefed

the CSCE in Washington DC to a packed room. Beginning with addressing

a full meeting of ambassadors and delegates from all fifty countries

of the �new� Europe plus the USA and Canada in October 1995, Michael

Bourdeaux called for the creation of a special committee on religious

liberty in the OSCE - ODIHR. In May 1996, Michael and Keston

colleaugue Philip Walters represented the FCO British delegation at

the first-ever seminar on freedom of religion convened by the OSCE.

It dealt with delicate issues such as proselytism across

denominations and the dispute over Orthodox jurisdiction in Estonia -

the latter story Keston broke to the world earlier in the year. Two

months later Michael was asked to join a group of experts assembled

to undertake special research on freedom of religion. In October,

Keston advised the FCO about its representation at the OSCE annual

review of human rights in Vienna.

In April 1997 Michael gave the first presentation at the inaugural

expert meeting on freedom of religion of the OSCE which by now had

become a regular consultation on religious liberty, focusing on

proselytism. Just as Yeltsin signed the law on religion, Michael

completed his review of the state of religious freedom in Russia for

distribution amongst the OSCE delegations at the November 1997 annual


Though lack of funds halted reconvening of the expert panel, since

its October 1998 review in Warsaw, at which Michael was an active

spokesman, funds have been secured.

As in the days of the Soviet Union, now all the more actively during

the building of a free Europe, Keston stands before world leaders

calling for greater commitment to the promotion of religious freedom.