50 YEARS AFTER THE UNITED NATIONS DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS: KESTON
INSTITUTE COMMITTED TO PROMOTION OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
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.