Read: Religious Freedom in the Asia Pacific

Web published: January 2000

Paper presented at "Human Rights, Faith and Culture: A Conference Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Canberra, 7-8 November 1998.


This paper outlines some aspects of the Bahá'’ Community's approach to one human rights initiative, the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. It does so in the context of key challenges facing nations in the Asia Pacific region if the cause of human rights is to be advanced. These include the need for new notions of governance, an understanding of the origin of human rights and their relationality, and a normative appreciation of diversity. The Asia Pacific is a region of diverse peoples and belief systems in which most of the great religious traditions have contributed in one or several states to the progress of civilisation. It is a region, too, in which entire states have been founded on one or other of the great traditions: Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Western/Christian. In the context of the rapid integration of economic and social systems frequently referred to as globalisation it is desirable that the increasing proximity of religious traditions leads to inter-faith harmony rather than to sectarianism. Legal standards ensuring freedom of belief provide an essential platform for religious harmony. A considerable number of states, particularly in the Pacific Islands, are yet to endorse the major covenants outlining these legal standards. The Decade of Human Rights Education provides the opportunity to heighten awareness of the issues, and the benefits of agreeing to common standards.


The Emergence of Universal Human Rights

The articulation of the rights of individuals, and the legal means for their protection, have emerged in response to consciousness of the large-scale brutality of the twentieth century, and now comprise a significant portion of twentieth century international law innovation. A significant body of legal norms has been built on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights agreed by the United Nations in 1948. Although merely a 'declaration' of desirable standards pertaining to human rights, the UDHR has had considerable impact on the ways in which states and citizens understand notions of individual rights and obligations. In 1966 the UN concluded two "covenants" concerning human rights: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). A number of other declarations have been formulated since, including one seeking to eliminate of all forms of racial prejudice; another to eliminate all forms of religious intolerance; and yet another declaring the rights of indigenous peoples. In addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the principal treaties are:

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

The Convention Against Torture

In 1993 the United Nations convened a Conference in Vienna to review global progress in advancing human rights. In 1995 the United Nations declared the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004).

The Bahá'’ International Community has contributed ideas on human rights policy from the inception of the United Nations. It presented the document "A Bahá'’ Declaration of Human Obligations and Rights" to the first session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights at Lake Success in New York in February 1947. That document identified seven "essential human rights characterizing the new world era": those concerned with: (1) the individual; (2) the family; (3) race; (4) work and wealth; (5) education; (6) worship; (7) social order.

Since 1947 the BIC has made numerous statements to sessions of various agencies of the United Nations. Almost every year since 1988 it has addressed a statement to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1998 in relation to the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

In 1995 the BIC published a Statement on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations and also in that year distributed a statement at the United Nations World Summit on Social Development, Copenhagen. In March 1996 the Bahá'’ International Community submitted a written statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights, indicating its full support for the Commission's Plan of Action.

Many of these documents point out that the Bahá'’ Community has been the beneficiary of the UN's human rights regime - particularly in relation to conditions in Iran but also following episodes of persecution in Morocco and elsewhere. But in addition to relying on human rights mechanisms to seek relief in such circumstances, the Bahá'’ International Community has sought to contribute actively to the formulation of policy and to foster within the human rights community a positive vision of possibilities for the future.

Human Rights in Asia-Pacific: the Bahá'’ Experience

Bahá'’ Communities in the Asia-Pacific region face particular challenges. In some states they are yet to secure for themselves the fundamental rights guaranteed in international law. A second challenge is their ability to make a contribution to the promotion of human rights of all who live in the region. The purpose of this paper is to briefly review the status of Bahá'’ Communities in the Asia-Pacific with respect to existing human rights regimes, and to consider the educational needs of these Communities if they are to make a genuine contribution to the promotion of human rights.

The persecution of Bahá'’s in Iran is the most widely acknowledged instance of persecution of Bahá'’s on the basis of their religion, but it is not the only instance. In Asia, for instance, political and social upheaval, and political and religious ideology, have affected the situation of the Bahá'’s in a number of countries. All effective contact with the Cambodian Bahá'’s was lost during the period of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-79), and apart from contact with Bahá'’s subsequently found in refugee camps in Thailand, the community had to be completely re-established in the 1980s. In Vietnam, similarly, the Bahá'’ Community was affected by government policy toward religions implemented after reunification in 1975.

The activities of Bahá'’ Communities in predominantly Islamic countries face a number of limitations. The Bahá'’ Community of Indonesia has been deprived of basic rights since the 1960s. Although the Indonesian constitution states "The State shall be based upon belief in the One, Supreme God", and that "The state shall guarantee the freedom of the people to express and to exercise their own religion", a Presidential Decree of 1962 banned a number of religious organisations including the Bahá'’ Faith. The length of this ban, and the legal arguments used to support it, are beginning to attract scholarly comment. The activities of the Bahá'’ Communities of Malaysia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are also subject to restrictions specified by law.

In the islands of the Pacific, most Bahá'’ Communities enjoy freedom of religion afforded by express constitutional protections. Subtle forms of persecution persist, however, at 'grass-roots' level in cultures that are unfamiliar with notions of human rights, and with religious diversity. Some Pacific Island constitutions protect Christianity as the state religion while allowing freedom of religion, creating a tension occasionally expressed in calls for the banning of non-Christian religions. Bahá'’ Communities in these states are uniquely placed: in many they constitute the largest non-Christian religious communities. While most Pacific Island states are members of the United Nations, some are too small to meet the basic requirements of membership: whether membership fees, or the costs of diplomatic representation. Accession to international treaties is an imposing exercise, and adherence to international standards of compliance and reporting is equally daunting.

Asia-Pacific Bahá'’ Communities and Human Rights Education

Asia-Pacific Bahá'’ Communities have been prepared for involvement in programs of Human Rights Education by several circumstances. Firstly, they are part of a global religious tradition that holds the values of the human rights culture implicit in its scripture. Second, on the basis of their own experience, they understand the urgency of systemic change in the operation of state power, and for broader understanding of the advantages of more enlightened cooperation between governments, individuals, and civil society.

This positive disposition, however, is accompanied by several constraints. There is a lack of detailed knowledge across Asia-Pacific Bahá'’ Communities about current human rights practices and procedures. Those who do have such knowledge are not sufficient in number to conduct broad-based education programs. The short-term implication is that such activity as does occur in the field of human rights education, and human rights advocacy, will be by a small group of specialists acting on behalf of their Communities. Despite the benefits of such activity, a broader approach to human rights education and advocacy will be required if the aspirations of the Human Rights Commission's Plan of Action is to be realised. The BIC statement on that plan comments:

The Plan of Action prepared by the High Commissioner for Human Rights reflects this integrated conception of education by defining human rights education as "training, dissemination and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights through the imparting of knowledge and skills and the moulding of attitudes which are directed to:

a) The strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;

b) The full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;

c) The promotion of understanding, tolerance, gender equality and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and racial, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups;

d) The enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free society; and

e) The furtherance of the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

The Bahá'’ International Community fully embraces these goals and objectives. Human rights education, if it is to succeed, must seek to transform individual attitudes and behaviour and thereby establish, within every local and national community, a new "culture" of respect for human rights. Only such a change in the fundamental social outlook of every individual - whether a government official or an ordinary citizen - can bring about the universal observance of human rights principles in the daily lives of people. In the final analysis, the human rights of an individual are respected and protected - or violated - by other individuals, even if they are acting in an official capacity. Accordingly, it is essential to touch the hearts, and elevate the behaviour, of all human beings, if, in the words of the Plan of Action, human rights are to be transformed "from the expression of abstract norms" to the "reality" of the "social, economic, cultural and political conditions" experienced by people in their daily lives."


Steps that can be taken

participation in human rights education

Therefore, the Bahá'’ International Community joins Mr. Ribeiro in his call for efforts to promote greater understanding amongst all people, particularly through inter-faith dialogues and through systematic efforts by the Centre for Human Rights to disseminate the principles of the 1981 Declaration through the media and to urge their inclusion in the curriculum of schools and universities.

In the view of the Bahá'’ International Community, the only sure means of eradicating prejudice is through education, for education dispels ignorance, and blind ignorance is at the root of all prejudice.

We, therefore, believe that education is the essential factor in securing implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief. It is necessary not only that the declaration be disseminated as widely as possible, but that it should most particularly be brought to the attention of schools and other educational bodies, and that determined steps should be taken, at both national and international levels, actively to promote understanding, tolerance and respect in matters relating to religion or belief.

Converting Declaration into a Treaty.

Turning now to the role of the international community in combating religious intolerance in all its many guises, the Bahá'’ International Community believes that the attention accorded in the United Nations human rights programme to the implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief is not only appropriate but must be increased.

… We do not believe that public denunciations are necessarily the best method of resolving the issues involved. We therefore appeal to the Commission, and to the Special Rapporteur, to devise strategies which will enable the Rapporteur to discuss problems with Governments and to assist Governments in solving difficulties without politicization of the issues.

It is also, we believe, important that the Commission remind itself of the General Assembly's decision, in December 1962, to initiate the preparation of both a Declaration and a Convention to combat religious intolerance. Practical considerations called, eventually, for priority to be given to the elaboration of a Declaration, but we believe that the Commission should once again recognize that this issue has the same claim to being dealt with in a binding international instrument as does the issue of racial discrimination.

We do not advocate the hasty initiation of a drafting exercise by the Commission, and we believe that the suggestion contained in paragraph 216 of Mrs. Odio-Benito's report -- namely, that non-governmental organizations and independent experts should be entrusted with drafting the outline for a Convention -- is an interesting proposal.

We believe that all men and women of good will can contribute towards hastening the end of religious fanaticism. They can do this, first, by living up to the high ideals of love, unity and tolerance that lie at the center of their own religions or beliefs. In addition … everyone must be taught to respect the beliefs of others so that they will not merely tolerate, but positively respect, those who hold different beliefs.

The Bahá'’ International Community believes that binding international norms protecting human rights are of great importance. We are therefore following with great interest the recent discussions in the Sub-Commission and the Commission on the possible elaboration of a binding international instrument dealing with freedom of religion or belief…


With the emergence of global human rights discourse in the second half of the twentieth century, issues of identity and difference have emerged. There is no regional human rights organisation in the Asia-Pacific, and a number of nations in the region insist on defining rights in their specific 'historical and cultural circumstances'. The UN Decade for Human Rights Education provides the opportunity for Bahá'’ communities to contribute a broad conception of human rights, in terms of their origin, scope, and ultimate purposes, to a vitally important component in the construction of global civil society and the new world order.


Appendix I


Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, G.A. res. 36/55, 36 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 171, U.N. Doc. A/36/684 (1981).

The General Assembly,

Considering that one of the basic principles of the Charter of the United Nations is that of the dignity and equality inherent in all human beings, and that all Member States have pledged themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion,

Considering that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenants on Human Rights proclaim the principles of nondiscrimination and equality before the law and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief,

Considering that the disregard and infringement of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or whatever belief, have brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to mankind, especially where they serve as a means of foreign interference in the internal affairs of other States and amount to kindling hatred between peoples and nations,

Considering that religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life and that freedom of religion or belief should be fully respected and guaranteed,

Considering that it is essential to promote understanding, tolerance and respect in matters relating to freedom of religion and belief and to ensure that the use of religion or belief for ends inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations, other relevant instruments of the United Nations and the purposes and principles of the present Declaration is inadmissible,

Convinced that freedom of religion and belief should also contribute to the attainment of the goals of world peace, social justice and friendship among peoples and to the elimination of ideologies or practices of colonialism and racial discrimination,

Noting with satisfaction the adoption of several, and the coming into force of some, conventions, under the aegis of the United Nations and of the specialized agencies, for the elimination of various forms of discrimination,

Concerned by manifestations of intolerance and by the existence of discrimination in matters of religion or belief still in evidence in some areas of the world,

Resolved to adopt all necessary measures for the speedy elimination of such intolerance in all its forms and manifestations and to prevent and combat discrimination on the ground of religion or belief,

Proclaims this Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief:

Article 1

1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.

3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Article 2

1. No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons, or person on the grounds of religion or other belief.

2. For the purposes of the present Declaration, the expression "intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief" means any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on religion or belief and having as its purpose or as its effect nullification or impairment of the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis.

Article 3

Discrimination between human being on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and shall be condemned as a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enunciated in detail in the International Covenants on Human Rights, and as an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between nations.

Article 4

1. All States shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life.

2. All States shall make all efforts to enact or rescind legislation where necessary to prohibit any such discrimination, and to take all appropriate measures to combat intolerance on the grounds of religion or other beliefs in this matter.

Article 5

1. The parents or, as the case may be, the legal guardians of the child have the right to organize the life within the family in accordance with their religion or belief and bearing in mind the moral education in which they believe the child should be brought up.

2. Every child shall enjoy the right to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.

3. The child shall be protected from any form of discrimination on the ground of religion or belief. He shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, respect for freedom of religion or belief of others, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men.

4. In the case of a child who is not under the care either of his parents or of legal guardians, due account shall be taken of their expressed wishes or of any other proof of their wishes in the matter of religion or belief, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle. 5. Practices of a religion or belief in which a child is brought up must not be injurious to his physical or mental health or to his full development, taking into account article 1, paragraph 3, of the present Declaration.

Article 6

In accordance with article I of the present Declaration, and subject to the provisions of article 1, paragraph 3, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief shall include, inter alia, the following freedoms:

(a) To worship or assemble in connection with a religion or belief, and to establish and maintain places for these purposes;

(b) To establish and maintain appropriate charitable or humanitarian institutions;

(c) To make, acquire and use to an adequate extent the necessary articles and materials related to the rites or customs of a religion or belief;

(d) To write, issue and disseminate relevant publications in these areas;

(e) To teach a religion or belief in places suitable for these purposes;

(f) To solicit and receive voluntary financial and other contributions from individuals and institutions;

(g) To train, appoint, elect or designate by succession appropriate leaders called for by the requirements and standards of any religion or belief;

(h) To observe days of rest and to celebrate holidays and ceremonies in accordance with the precepts of one's religion or belief;

(i) To establish and maintain communications with individuals and communities in matters of religion and belief at the national and international levels.

Article 7

The rights and freedoms set forth in the present Declaration shall be accorded in national legislation in such a manner that everyone shall be able to avail himself of such rights and freedoms in practice.

Article 8

Nothing in the present Declaration shall be construed as restricting or derogating from any right defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenants on Human Rights. v2.7 (213613) © 2005 - 2021 Emanuel V. Towfigh & Peter Hoerster | Imprint | Change Interface Language: DE