The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, commonly abbreviated to "FoRB", affects everyone.
FoRB represents the fundamental freedom to follow your conscience and live according to a worldview of your choice. It incorporates freedom of thought on all matters, covers theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, and means that you can adopt, practice and leave any religion without judgement on the content of beliefs, including the right not to believe.
FoRB is protected by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - among other international treaties. The meaning and scope of Article 18 UDHR has been explored by the UN Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 22, and regular reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB help to define and shape debate on international FoRB-related issues.
FoRB has two dimensions:
1. The forum internum protects the absolute right of individuals to choose what to think and believe without coercion, indoctrination or other outside interference. It includes the right to form opinions, hold personal convictions, including those that others might find objectionable or offensive, and privately adhere to a religion or belief system - or none.
2. The forum externum protects the right of individuals to express, privately or publicly and alone or in community with others, their deeply held convictions, for example through ceremony and ritual, display of symbols or wearing of clothing, observance of dietary requirements and use of a particular language. Public manifestations of religion or belief do not require State permission but may be restricted by the State where necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.
It is essential for the full enjoyment of FoRB that individuals are able to declare and display their deeply-held convictions. FoRB encompasses the right to share your views and encourage others to adopt your beliefs - with the caveat that disinterested persons have an equal right to refuse to engage with proselytism. Parents have the right to teach their children in conformity with their own convictions, and religion or belief communities sharing a common worldview have the right to gather together, appoint leaders and erect and maintain buildings and other sites in order to explore their religion or belief through worship, teaching, practice and observance.
The right to FoRB sits at the epicentre of human rights, a core part of the universal, indivisible international legal structure. It is particularly closely connected with freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and it intersects with a wide range of other human rights and issues including women's rights, children's rights, security and development.
Without FoRB, no other civil and political rights can be realised. Violations of FoRB are also often an indicator of other human rights issues and an early warning of violence and conflict. For this reason, FoRB is often described as the "litmus test" for society.
Over three-quarters of the world's population suffer discrimination, oppression or violence because of their religion or belief. All religion or belief groups, including theists, non-theists and atheists, experience FoRB violations. Violations may be committed by State authorities, by religion or belief groups against individuals within their own communities, or by religious, ethnic or secular individuals and groups against others in society.
FoRB violations take many forms:
- Blasphemy and apostasy laws fundamentally contravene FoRB by privileging one religious belief over any other. They restrict free religious and non-religious choice and expression and embed intolerance in society. In some countries, the mere accusation of blasphemy or apostasy can lead to mob violence, with severe and often fatal consequences.
- Anti-conversion laws similarly restrict free religious and non-religious choice and expression and exacerbate societal intolerance of minorities. They limit, for example, the ability of religion or belief communities to tell others about their beliefs or invite them to attend ceremonies or gatherings.
- Laws which make it compulsory for personal ID cards to register a religious affiliation or for religious groups to register with State authorities are often a pretext for suppression. Registration can lead to monitoring, discrimination and reprisals against individuals or communities for non-conformity with State-mandated norms.
- Violence is often committed against individuals, groups or communities simply because of their religion or belief. Hateful aggressors often act with impunity in countries with repressive regimes or weak rule of law, where police do little to investigate incidents or halt attacks and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.
- Religious leaders, people who express their religion or belief in non-conformist ways and FoRB supporters such as journalists and lawyers are frequently subjected to surveillance, harassment and arbitrary detention for exercising or defending the right to FoRB.
- Desecration and destruction of religious buildings and sites undermines the right of communities to erect and main these, and restricts the ability of communities to gather, worship and observe ceremonies and rituals integral to their religion or belief. Even if groups have complied with State registration requirements, buildings can be arbitrarily demolished and communities denied permission to buy the materials needed to rebuild.
- Because FoRB is an integrated part of the human rights framework, violations of FoRB often intersect with other human rights issues, including women's rights and gender equality and access to basic services such as education, water and housing.
FoRB violations can have a devastating impact on individuals, communities and societies. Yet too often, prejudice and intolerance against religion or belief groups is fuelled by political narratives. Authoritarian States also often restrict religious activity as a means to suppress wider civil society activity.
Protecting FoRB is vital to achieve a more a fair, just, peaceful and prosperous world - for everyone. Respect for FoRB underpins a social, political and legal culture which accepts both that we can have deep differences in our views and beliefs and that we all have human rights.
The European Union (EU) is committed to promoting and protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law worldwide. It strongly affirms the universal, indivisible nature of human rights and seeks through internal and external policies to ensure and advance human dignity, equality and solidarity.
FoRB is protected within the EU by Article 10 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The rights, freedoms and principles detailed in the Charter are legally binding on the EU and must be applied by its Member States when implementing EU law. The EU also continually seeks to find "shared space" between human rights and religion, and conducts a regular dialogue with churches, religious associations and communities, philosophical and non-confessional organisations to discuss controversial topics, build trust and work towards finding solutions to human rights issues.
Beyond its borders, the EU addresses FoRB through multilevel diplomatic action, including issuing statements, raising issues and cases with third-party States, supporting resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council and interacting with the UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB.
Guidelines on freedom of religion or belief adopted by the EU Foreign Affairs Council in 2013 set out how the EU intends to advance FoRB in its external action. They focus on eight equally important areas for action: violence, freedom of expression, promotion of respect for diversity and tolerance, discrimination, changing or leaving one's religion or belief, manifestation of religion or belief, support and protection for human rights defenders and support for and engagement with civil society. The Guidelines can be relied on by civil society and are implemented at country level by EU Delegations.
The Special Envoy on FoRB outside the EU acts to support implementation of the Guidelines, with a special focus on country-level action. The current mandate-holder, Dr. Ján Figeľ, visits countries to engage with national authorities and institutions on FoRB issues, meets regularly with civil society and participates in international initiatives and multilateral processes.
The European Parliament also includes FoRB in its policy work. In particular, a cross-parliamentary Intergroup of MEPs dedicated to ensuring that the EU promotes and protects FoRB in external action acts prominently by asking questions, hosting hearings, supporting resolutions, participating in delegation visits and releasing an annual report on FoRB in the world.