The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, enshrines freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief as a human right. These rights are echoed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
But is the right to express ones religion without restriction? What does the United Nations say on this matter?
Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief is mandated by the Human Rights Council and General Assembly to examine incidents and actions that are incompatible with the Declaration, and other relevant international standards.
In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur, along with Fernand de Varennes, and E. Tendayi Achiume drafted a letter of concern stating that Bill 21 ‘…does not indicate how the prohibition of certain officials and civil servants from wearing religious symbols in the exercise of their functions is necessary and proportionate to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.’ The letter goes on to state that, ‘It is not established how the wearing of religious symbols specifically affects the fundamental rights and freedoms of others’.
This letter directly references the Declarations’ one sole exception for the infringement of religious expression stating that, ‘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’.
It was made clear in the UN Special Rapporteur report to the 37th meeting of the Human Rights Committee, that ‘national identity’, ‘national unity’ and ‘culture’ are not valid justifications for restrictions on religious freedoms. The same report cautions that states with no religious affiliation, while well-placed to protect human rights, including freedom of religion and belief, are increasingly facing risks of discrimination. Specifically, ‘where there is a plurality of social values, difference-blind policies might de facto create a hierarchy of rights where laws of general effect impose disproportionate burdens on religious minorities, unless there is reasonable accommodation’.
A number of cases have already come before the Human Rights Committee defending the application of the exemption. Sri Lanka denied the incorporation of a Catholic order on the grounds that it would harm Buddhists. France claimed that the wearing of face coverings posed a threat to public safety, and Russia claimed that the propagation of homosexuality posed a moral threat. All three claims were rejected by the Human Rights Committee as being unfounded or invalid.
Does Bill 21 meet the standards of exemption from the obligation to protect the expression of religion or belief? The UN Special Rapporteur believes it does not. We will have to wait to see if the Human Rights Committee is called on to pass it’s judgment.
President & CEO
As a national civil society organization, UNA-Canada continues to raise awareness, concern and empathy on international issues that affect us all. A major focus of our programmes is to support youth as they gain empathy-based skills that enable them to live and serve as caring global citizens. For more information please visit our website at www.unac.org