Freedom of religion, conscience and belief is, in my view, one of the most profound of all human rights that are sheltered and given form in our shared international architecture of rights. The blueprint for this soaring edifice of rights and liberties is found in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a remarkable document that has, over the past 74 years, attained the status and honor of other revered documents of freedom, including the Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Magna Carta.
Article 18 of the U.N. declaration lays out a capacious and inclusive understanding of religious freedom that equally protects the rights of traditional believers and atheists, alike. The drafters understood that one of the most important ways to uphold individual dignity is by allowing people to live their lives in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. So many precious liberties flow from this bedrock right, including freedom of speech, the press, of assembly and more. That’s why I have always been baffled at the near second-class status that religious freedom has had within the broader human rights community. A few years ago, the British All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom issued a report titled “Article 18: An Orphaned Right.”
Why would this fundamental freedom be sidelined? And what are the implications for the broader human rights movement when this happens? There is no single answer to the first question. Perhaps it is because many voices in the human rights world are uncomfortable dealing with matters of faith. They feel more at ease focusing on goals that feel more relevant and concrete. Some have suggested that defending freedom of religion can lead to sticky situations in international affairs. This is particularly true when dealing with countries where religious belief is severely constrained by ideology, like in China and North Korea, or where the majority faith does not permit or welcome religious pluralism, such as in Iran and Saudi Arabia. But advancing human rights is all about making abusive governments uncomfortable. If ever there was a cause that “speaks truth to power,” it is the cause of religious freedom.
As for the second question, the evidence is unequivocal. We know from research that a nation crushing the conscience rights of its people invariably denies them a whole host of other basic human rights. Conversely, societies that do a robust job of protecting conscience rights are more peaceful, more prosperous, more democratic, and women in such societies enjoy a higher socioeconomic status. It turns out that defending religious freedom is not just good for the soul, it is also good for the whole of society.
And yet we face the sad reality that roughly 75 percent of the world’s population live in countries that significantly restrict and repress freedom of religion. There are the usual suspects: China, Russia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan. Perhaps even more alarming is countries that claim to be democracies, like India and Nigeria, have been recommended by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for inclusion on the State Department’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern.”
The U.S. government has a range of tools to encourage countries to strengthen religious freedom protections. But unfortunately both Republican and Democratic administrations have been reluctant to fully deploy either their soft or hard power levers. I am optimistic this will change.
Earlier this year, the third annual International Religious Freedom Summit convened in Washington, D.C. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power both underscored the link between foreign policy and religious freedom. Congressmen Mike McCaul, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Jim McGovern, a Democrat and co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, together spoke about their commitment to international religious freedom. As governments recognize that religious freedom is the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to threats to our national security and global stability, they start to embed the defense of religious freedom more robustly into their foreign and defense policy strategies.
At the summit, one could sense the momentum and passion of a growing movement. More than 1,200 participants from dozens of countries and faith communities gathered to educate, advocate and stand in unity for each other. Networks were established, initiatives launched and bridges built. This noble cause — “religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, all the time” — is worthy of our most determined and faith-filled efforts. As the growing international religious freedom movement presses on, I hope and believe we will begin to see progress around the world.
Katrina Lantos Swett is president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.