Bahai News - US Delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission

Ms. Felice Gaer
US Delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission
on item 19
Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

March 30, 1998

(as delivered)
Mr. Chairman:

This year we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our purpose in doing so is a serious one: to remind each and every one of us of the substance of this extraordinary document and the urgency of the ongoing fight to end human rights violations wherever they occur.

One of the most important elements of the Universal Declaration is our topic for today: religious freedom. Specifically, article 18 begins with the statement that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."

There is much to consider in these simple words, beginning with the first of them -- "everyone."

The fact that freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a universal human right -- and thus should be universally applied -- might seem self-evident, except that it is so often violated. Yet clearly everyone means everyone. Every individual, in every country of the world, has the right to practice his or her religion, as he or she sees fit, alone or in the community of others, in public or in private.

Individuals must be free to enjoy this right completely. And this includes not only the right to believe, but freedom to "manifest his [or her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." That is the standard to which we must hold each of our countries.

Mr. Chairman, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance that religious freedom has played at every stage of American history. In this, we have been among the most fortunate of nations, for we have never had to suffer from religious war. Instead, religion has been free to play the inspirational role it should among free people, guiding them in their daily lives. There is a reason for this, and it is to be found in our abiding and deep support for the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state.

As you know, many of the settlers to the American colonies came to escape persecution from the state religions of Europe and worship as they thought best. While some of our early colonies were not noted for their tolerance, this began to change as our national character developed, and by the time we won our independence, religious freedom -- and the freedom to have no religion -- was already well-established.

So, too, was another idea -- the separation of church and state. This is one of our Constitution's great achievements, for it allows the government to accommodate every faith without advocating any, helping foster a climate where all religions have flourished.

These two ideas -- freedom of religion and separation of church and state -- were incorporated into our Bill of Rights of 1791, part of a set of fundamental rights Americans demanded as a basis for national union. Since that time America's commitment to religious freedom and tolerance has been a cornerstone of our nation's growth and development.

Indeed, the United States has made space for virtually every religion in the world, including several new denominations that have sprung up from our native soil. Twenty-eight religious groups with more a million adherents call America their home. Another 35 have a hundred thousand followers or more. At the same time, new communities -- whether Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahai's, or Hindus -- are emerging all across our country.

This profusion of beliefs contributes mightily to our diversity and strength and helps explain why the American people take matters of religious intolerance -- wherever they occur -- to heart.

As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said last fall: "we are the defender of no one faith, but the respecter of all and of the right of all to proclaim and exercise faith ... In our policy towards other nations, we do not act or judge on the basis of religions or cultural tradition, but on behavior, on compliance with international norms. And when those norms are not observed, we express our opposition to the acts in question, not to the religion of those involved."

This is why we established the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad in November 1996. Its members include religious leaders who represent millions of Americans of all major faiths and denominations and scholars who have dedicated their professional lives to the study of religious liberty; their purpose is to advise the Secretary of State on ways to promote and protect religious freedom worldwide and to focus on freedom, violations and reconciliation.

Mr. Chairman, we know that religious persecution and acts of intolerance occur when other human rights violations take place. No single theory can account for the recurring problems of religious intolerance. We have seen the incidence of religious persecution rise, however, when societies are under stress from political, economic, and social deterioration. This probably accounts for some of the anti-semitism that has arisen in the Central and Eastern Europe and the nations of the former Soviet Union since its collapse. And we must recall that Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism. Political, economic, and social deterioration is also a factor in Hindu-Moslem tensions in India and in tensions between Sunni and Shi'a communities in Pakistan. Such stress helps fuel intradenominational conflicts elsewhere as well.

As part of our effort to incorporate our commitment to religious freedom into our international policies, Secretary of State Albright has instructed all U.S. diplomatic posts to give greater attention to religious persecution in their reporting and advocacy. She has also agreed to create a new senior-level position within the State Department to coordinate our efforts.

Mr. Chairman, the scope of our concerns are truly global, for religious intolerance is not a product of a single region, culture, religion or ethnic group. In this regard, we were pleased with Secretary General Kofi Annan's recent statement that "the broader fight against anti-semitism must be addressed" and that the international community must "denounce anti-semitism in all of its manifestations."

The United States cannot remain indifferent to the Sudanese government's heavy-handed persecution of the largely non-Muslim south. Long years of civil war cannot excuse forced conversions or the enslavement of Christians and animists. Rather, the prevalence of these appalling phenomena should compel us all to seek a speedy, just and durable settlement to the 15-year conflict.

Nor can we look aside in the face of Iran's persecution of Baha'is or Evangelical Christians or Burma's persecution of its Buddhist majority and Christian and Rohingya Muslim minorities.

In China, the government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-controlled and government-sanctioned religious organizations and registered places of worship. Tight controls remain on religion and fundamental freedoms in Tibet and Xinjiang. We find it particularly hard to accept the continued detention of the boy designated by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama, a child of less than ten.

In some cases Chinese authorities have used detention, arrest, and reform through education sentences to enforce their control. Despite this pressure, the number of religious adherents in many churches -- both registered and unregistered -- continue to grow at a rapid pace.

The United States is also concerned over Russia's new religion law, which could result in severe restrictions on minority religions, particularly Evangelical Protestants, and even some offshoots of Orthodox and other religions.

Islam is one of the world's great religions, Mr. Chairman, and one of the fastest-growing faiths in our own country. We share with our Muslim citizens concern over the growing intolerance expressed by certain elements of European society.

At the same time, we cannot accept those who invoke Islam or other religions as justification for atrocious human rights abuses. We refer specifically to terrorist groups like Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, whose massacres, throat-slitting, and abduction of young girls as "temporary wives" constitute a mockery of Islam's holy precepts.

Mr. Chairman, as we examine the Special Rapporteur's report on religious intolerance and the toll it takes on our societies, we should also reflect on the positive role that religious leaders can play in conflict resolution and national reconciliation. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. The Commission needs to consider ways in which it can work with religious communities to further the cause of religious freedom and respect for all other universal human rights.

We note the studies on religious freedom that India's Krishnaswami, Costa Rica's Elisabeth Odio Benito and the Netherland's Theo van Boven have prepared for this Commission and the leadership of Senegal's late Abdoulaye Dieye who guided the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance to its completion. The Commission could not have made the progress that it has without contributions from scholars and experts from all parts of the world. The United States strongly supported the creation of the special rapporteur on religious intolerance and looks forward to the renewal of the mandate.

We need to build on these achievements, Mr. Chairman. There is much more that needs to be done to eradicate religious intolerance and the violent acts which result from religious extremism. We have noted the Special Rapporteur's continuing interest in this subject.

We also urge the High Commissioner to ensure the full integration of religious freedom issues into the programs of her office and her missions. We ask the Special Rapporteurs that address country situations and thematic issues to meet with leaders of religious communities and human rights organizations and report on conditions of intolerance and religious freedom in their reports.

By protecting and promoting freedom of religion and by ensuring that states do not violate individual rights to religious freedom, we can help further the great work of our time: making the promise of the Universal Declaration a reality for all of us.

Thank you.

©Copyright 1998, United States Information Service (USIS) in Geneva
Original Story

Top 19 Baha'i Sites Page last updated/revised 060300
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page