Like oil and water? The intersection of freedom of
religion and belief with human rights
Commissioner Tom Calma
17 September 2008
Can I begin by thanking and acknowledging the Ngunnawal Peoples, the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting and thank Aunty Agnes for her warm welcome.
Thank you Laurie Ferguson, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs, for participating and co-launching with me.
Dr Hass Dellal from the Australian Multicultural Foundation who is here representing the research team, distinguished guests and friends, Thank you for sharing this morning’s launch with us.
Today we are here to discuss religion, belief and human rights.
The fundamental human right of freedom of religion and belief is protected by
a number of international treaties and declarations.
It encompasses freedom of thought in all matters and the freedom to
demonstrate and express our religion and belief individually, with others, in
private or in public.
For some of us this is easy to do, it is important to do, and there are no
inherent contradictions in doing so.
Yet others of us may find it less easy. Indeed, if we don’t find it
easy to do, we may feel that religion and human rights don’t mix, like oil
Yet we are, all of us, involved everyday in discussions about the
intersection of religion and belief with human rights simply by virtue of the
daily news headlines.
Every day our lives are touched by questions about religion, belief systems
and the way they do, have or might impact upon a host of rights that we
collectively refer to as our human rights.
Think about the issues that we have become aware of through our news
Issues of science and scientific research are often questioned – and a
significant amount of that questioning is done on the grounds of its possible
conflict with religious belief
Works of art are often criticised for offending against people’s
religion and belief
Think of the ongoing debates that take place around the issues of
homosexuality or abortion – again, significant questioning on the grounds
of conflict with religious belief
There is the debate about the extent to which religion and religious
institutions should be involved in our schooling system, both religious and
secular schools, in setting curriculums and in practices such as standards of
The treatment of women in various religions is often in the news, both as
worshippers and as potential religious leaders.
We are made aware of issues of religion and belief and human rights
with the rise of fundamentalism, as reported in the news:
There is discussion of the concepts of creationism versus evolution
We are presented with stories about cults and cult survivors
And the discussion of religion and belief has been significantly heightened
this century in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001 in the United
States and the subsequent actions that have been taken by governments around the
Which brings us to governments and religion and belief:
I have already alluded to the intersection of security issues with religion
There are also issues about the extent and appropriateness of governments
delegating certain services to religiously affiliated charity organisations
And we have all seen the elevation of personal religious belief to become an
increasingly important aspect of the campaign mix for politicians on the
All of these stories and more involve us every day in the
intersection of religion and belief with human rights.
My point is that we are all directly and indirectly affected by our own
freedom, and the freedom of others, to practice religion and exercise beliefs
and the way in which these beliefs can influence the freedom of others to enjoy
their human rights.
Given the prominence of such issues in the headlines, and indeed in our
lives, I see it as timely that they be comprehensively evaluated in terms of
their impacts on the practice, expression and perception of religion and
spirituality in Australia.
A better understanding of these issues and the way they influence, and are
influenced by, our attitudes and laws will assist us to advance our
nation’s social and cultural prosperity.
I want to make the point that the relationship between religion and belief
with culture is such that issues such as religious vilification can easily
translate into racial vilification and discrimination.
You might ask, then, what the intent of this discussion paper is?
I would say it aims to examine and report upon the extent to which the right
to freedom of religion and belief can be enjoyed in Australia today.
And it will do this by drawing from practical everyday experiences and
observations, as well as through organised consultations.
So in launching this discussion paper, I am asking people to come forward
with their experiences and observations about freedom of religion and belief in
Australia and the associated influences of and on human rights.
At the beginning of this speech I referred to the international treaties and
declarations that protect our right to freedom of religion and belief.
To understand this right, we have to go back in time.
Our starting point is 1948 - the year the newly formed United Nations agreed
on the seminal document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
2008 is its 60th birthday.
The Universal Declaration lays down the fundamental, indivisible and
inalienable rights of ALL humans.
It came into effect, not least, because of the carnage, moral outrage and
global dislocations caused by the Second World War.
Among the crimes against humanity was the genocide of people with a disability, the
Romany and, most significantly, the Holocaust of European Jews.
Among other things, these genocides highlighted the need to protect humans
for their adherence to a religion.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration does just that.
In subsequent treaties passed by the United Nations this protection has been
repeated. In others, protections of peoples’ culture and tangible and
intangible heritage have been affirmed.
For example, the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is one such
treaty for which I am hoping the Rudd Government will signal their support to
the United Nations in this celebratory year.
To quote from the 2004 DIaC report Religion, Cultural Diversity and
The anti-religion ideologies of Communism and Nazism have been consigned
to the dustbin of history... however, it is very apparent... that religion and
faith are not going to drift away... In fact, one of the major features of
twentieth century history was the enduring stability of religion and its
Indeed, one of the paradoxes of religion and contemporary society has been
the enduring nature of faith.
We may have witnessed the decline of established religion and the growth of
secularism, but at the same time, we have seen the growth of alternative
spiritual belief systems and ‘non-mainstream’ faiths.
I noted a moment ago that while religion and human rights are compatible, and
religious leaders have often been great champions of human rights, this is not
always the case.
Just as the enlightened and liberal-minded of both religious and secular
beliefs embrace human rights and democratic values, the unenlightened and
reactionary secularist or religious fanatic share their hatreds of the same
principles and systems.
But this is a polarised picture, and the debate is far more complex.
Human rights are both a system of laws and a body of ethics.
One of the things that laws and ethics have in common - not to mention
religion! - are that they are endlessly debatable, open to interpretation, and
As my reference to the daily new headlines indicated earlier, there are very
reasonable questions to ask about faith, religion and various human rights.
For example, are there boundaries to the right of freedom of
What represents fair criticism of another belief system?
What are reasonable constraints on conversion?
Can human rights perversely limit religious freedoms?
I can’t give you any simple answers to these questions.
And in launching this discussion paper, I can say that I’m sure, even
after two years of planning, research, consultation and reporting, our eventual
comprehensive report on these issues will not give you many, if any, definitive
What I do hope we will have, however, is the most comprehensive analysis of
religion, belief and human rights ever undertaken in Australia.
The Australian Human Rights Commission and our expert advisers will cover as
many of the questions that link the issues as can think of.
And we will scope the issues as thoroughly and clearly as possible.
In closing, I’d like to make the observation that the relationship
between religion, other belief systems, and society is less an intersection than
a total intertwining of how humans live their lives, fill their time, frame
their conduct, make moral judgements, form and maintain relationships, spend
their assets, construct their environment and evolve cultural landscapes.
A real understanding of freedom of religion and belief requires an
understanding of more than the issues scoped in this discussion paper.
I can point to a number of relevant examples here:
when do the arts offend and, if they do, what can or should be done about
Should scientists be permitted to undertake research that offend religious
Should the media be able to say whatever they like about faith communities
without accountability or taking responsibility for their conduct?
Discussion and enquiry are fundamental to democracies, to
intellectual freedom, to creativity, to culture and to human rights.
The very process of national consultation and open discourse about freedom of
religion and belief and human rights will be significant for Australia.
If, along the way, we can find consensus between some groups and strengthen
civil society, that will be an achievement in itself.
I end by commending this discussion paper and eventual report to you.
I hope you will all contribute in whatever ways that you can, and that you
will tell your friends, family and colleagues that this is an important process
that all Australians should embrace.