Rethinking International Freedom of Religion or Belief Policies

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In the last decade, there has been a rich build up in experience with “international religious freedom policy.” However, there are a number of flaws that keep being repeated in these policies and initiatives. Why should they be considered flaws?

The first thing that needs addressing is the term itself. Though invited to address “international religious freedom policy,” I will take a broader focus by addressing “international freedom of religion or belief policies.” 

As far back as the late 1940s, the international community determined the scope of this freedom to include thought, conscience, religion, and belief. This was enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The shorthand for this broad scope is “religion or belief.” This departed from the language of President Roosevelt’s 1941 Four Freedoms, where he posited the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.” It also departed from the First Amendment language of the U.S. Constitution and of the scope outlined in the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, which was adopted some six months before the UDHR. The UDHR was a turning point in this regard, and the European Convention on Human Rights, which opened for signature some two years after the adoption of the UDHR, also captured this broader scope.