Like oil and water? The intersection of freedom of religion and belief with human rights

Commissioner Tom Calma
Race Discrimination Commissioner


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 and water.

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 services:

  • 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 dress

  • 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 world.

Which brings us to governments and religion and belief:

  • I have already alluded to the intersection of security issues with religion and belief

  • 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 election trail.

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 Safeguarding Australia:

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 institutions

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 often contradictory.

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 expression?

  • 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 answers either.

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 it?

  • Should scientists be permitted to undertake research that offend religious belief?

  • 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.

Thank you