Academic journal article Humanity

The Politics of Article 18: Religious Liberty in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Academic journal article Humanity

The Politics of Article 18: Religious Liberty in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article excerpt

When the international human rights regime emerged in the 1940s, the right to religious liberty stood out as one of its central principles. It was one of the cornerstones in Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" address; was singled out as one of the moral objectives of war that the Allied powers declared on New Year's Day 1942; and was incorporated into most prototypical international bills of rights elaborated by various states, international law institutes, and individual activists during the war years. Yet even if the concept of religious liberty was central in the era's fledgling human rights discourse, it remained entirely unclear what its basic components actually were, let alone how these should be phrased in an international document. This was one of the challenges that faced the United Nations' original Commission on Human Rights and its designated Drafting Committee. After extensive discussion, it resolved by crafting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

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.

As has been evident in the ensuing decades, this articulation of religious liberty permits a variety of interpretations. Article 18 never addresses the difficult questions of how the relation between states and religious institutions should be regulated; it leaves terms like "teaching," "practice," "worship," and "observance" undefined; and it never clarifies under which circumstances religious liberty can and cannot be curtailed. According to Malcolm D. Evans, the nature of the drafting process anticipated many of the contemporary debates on the nature of these aspects. Although most states found it possible to endorse the Drafting Committee's proposal, they did so with very different understandings of what it implied. Therefore, Evans concludes, "what has proven to be one of the most influential statements of religious rights of mankind yet devised entered into the international arena with no further light shed upon its meaning."1 The implication of this argument is that Article 18 in itself is a minimalistic and unproblematic articulation of religious liberty, one which had no specific meaning in the postwar moment, just as it has no stable meaning today.

This may be a reasonable conclusion to reach from the traces of the drafting process that we encounter in the official meeting records of the United Nations. These give the impression of a hasty debate in which many different positions were voiced but generally without thorough explanation. But if we go beyond the official records and place this articulation of religious liberty in a broader intellectual and political context, a different picture emerges. By following some of the main actors who were involved in shaping Article 18, this essay will suggest that its primary components-its stress on the inner dimensions of conscience and belief, as well as the right to change one's religion-reflected very particular political and intellectual currents in the postwar moment. Article 18 was not the result of some abstract overlapping consensus but rather a triumph for a few actors to whom its details mattered.

This essay is divided into three historical sections: the first deals not so much with Article 18 per se as with the expunction of minority rights from the UDHR. This decision, which was driven by the United States and France, meant that all institutional aspects of religious liberty were exorcised from the document; it essentially paved the way for a conceptualization of the term that centered on the religious and existential choice of the individual person. The second section traces the impact of personalism in the shaping of Article 18. Through the groundbreaking work of Marco Duranti and Samuel Moyn, this heterogeneous intellectual current has been portrayed as the main vehicle for the language of human rights in the immediate postwar era. …

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