Today is Human Rights Day, commemorating the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The theme this year is “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always.”… not as good as last year’s, but not bad.
This coming year is going to be a pretty big year for international human rights. 2016 will mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Both were adopted 16 December 1966; the ICESCR came into effect 3 January 1976, and the ICCPR came into effect 23 March 1976. The UDHR may be the pretty face in international human rights, but it’s the ICESCR and the ICCPR that are the muscle – the UDHR is a mere declaration of what would be desirable, while the ICESCR and ICCPR are formal treaties. Together the UDHR, the ICESCR, the ICCPR, and the two Optional Protocols to the ICCPR make up the International Bill of Human Rights. Canada has signed all of these (though we only signed on to the second Optional Protocol, about the death penalty, in 2005).
Much ado is going to be made of the “Four Freedoms” that the International Bill of Rights is based on:
- freedom of speech
- freedom of belief
- freedom from want
- freedom from fear
The one atheists, humanists, and freethinkers are going to want to keep a close eye on is the second one in that list. I have worded it as “freedom of belief”, but if you look around, you’ll see it is often described with other words:
- freedom of religion
- freedom of worship
“Freedom of religion” is the most common way this freedom is described. Hence the well known nonbeliever rebuttal: “freedom from religion”, and its longer form “freedom of religion must include freedom from religion”. “Freedom of worship” is less commonly used these days, but I imagine you’re going to be hearing it a lot in the coming year. That’s because when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt first enumerated the four freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union Address, he used that term:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour – anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.
Today, with 75 years’ hindsight, Roosevelt’s wording of that second freedom seems a little clumsy – if not outright ignorant and exclusionary. But you have to keep in mind that Roosevelt was making this speech in the middle of World War ⅠⅠ (although it was January 1941 at the time he made it, and the US was studiously keeping out the war – they wouldn’t get seriously involved until the Pearl Harbour attack in December). Given how quickly modern leaders are willing to throw away people’s basic human rights at the mere possibility of a single ISIS militant, Roosevelt’s stand in the face of the growing threat of Hitler, Hirohito, and even Stalin is frankly humbling.
Luckily in the 25 years following his speech, human rights experts realized he’d fumbled the ball on that one. By the time the UDHR was written, this was what Article 18 looked like:
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.
And Article 18 of the ICCPR:
- Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or 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.
- No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
- Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs 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.
- The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
Atheist, humanist, and secular groups have done an enormous amount of work in the years since to clarify that the fundamental freedom Roosevelt was describing – and that Article 18 of the ICCPR enshrines – is not “freedom of worship”, or even “freedom of religion”, but rather “freedom of belief“. In other words, non-religious thought and conscience as just as much fundamental rights as religious beliefs, and deserve just as much respect and protection in the law.
It was not an easy job. It wasn’t until 1993 that the UN human rights committee declared officially that Article 18 did indeed cover nonreligious thought, conscience, and belief.
So we have to make sure that we take a stand and make our voices heard in the 50th anniversary talk. We have to remind that parroting Roosevelt’s archaic turn of phrase may seem cute, and it may seem like a good way to connect contemporary human rights work with history… but it’s wrong. Right now, nonbelief is – by far – the most dangerous category of religious belief to hold in the entire world. It is perhaps now more important than ever to make sure that it is not forgotten that “freedom of belief” includes “freedom from belief”.
Incidentally, as they do every year on Human Rights Day, the International Humanist and Ethical Union released their Freedom of Thought report, which catalogues systemic discrimination against nonbelievers. I’d love to tell you what’s in it, but I haven’t been able to download the report myself, due to technical glitches (which appear to be the IHEU’s fault, not mine). However, I can tell you that Canada still scores “Systemic Discrimination” – pretty much the same as always. When I can finally get my hands on the report, I’ll give you more details.