Several key international agreements approved by the United Nations (UN) enshrine freedom of religion, belief, and expression as basic international human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, states:

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.” (Article 18)

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (Article 19)

The UNDHR gained the force of international law in 1966 under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states:

“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.” (Article 18)

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” (Article 19) As an international treaty, the ICCPR is legally binding on its signatories.

The ICCPR not only protects the right to believe, it also protects the right to reject belief, the right to identify as humanist or atheist, and the right to express or practice nontheism. As the United Nations Human Rights Committee has explained:

  1. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18.1 is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters ….
  2. Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions.

There are, however, limits to these international agreements’ support for free expression. Article 20 of the ICCPR has the potential to conflict with U.S. law where it states:

“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

The United States has always opposed Article 20 of the ICCPR and was one of eighteen countries to issue a reservation to it. The U.S. reservation to Article 20 clarifies that the U.S. does not adhere to Article 20 in instances where compliance would restrict freedom of speech and association as defined by the U.S. Constitution.

 

Many countries that ratified Article 20 have used it as a pretext to quash criticism of religious orthodoxies. In response, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in 2011 and 2012 sponsored a series of workshops with human rights experts around the world to clarify Article 20 and the term “incitement.”

In early 2013, these experts released the Rabat Plan of Action, which noted in part:

…national legal systems should make it clear, either explicitly or through authoritative interpretation, that the terms hatred and hostility refer to ‘intense and irrational emotions of opprobrium, enmity and detestation towards the target group’, that the term advocacy is to be understood as ‘requiring an intention to promote hatred publicly towards the target group’ and that the term incitement refers to ‘statements about national, racial or religious groups which create an imminent risk of discrimination, hostility or violence against persons belonging to those groups’.”

The UN Human Rights Council, which considers non-binding resolutions in the area of freedom of belief and religion, and the UN General Assembly have recently made progress in this area. Anti-defamation resolutions rejecting robust protection for free speech have fallen out of favor at the UN, and a significant number of member states have now recognized that blasphemy laws violate basic human rights. The UNDHR and the ICCPR expressly promise the right to freedom of religion, belief, and expression. Only a small minority of countries have refused to sign and ratify these treaties, though some signatories persist in persecuting people based on their religious practices and beliefs or lack thereof.