Is the U.N. Maneuvering to Curb Religion?
“ONCE upon a time,” observed England’s Manchester Guardian, “the United States and others saw the United Nations as the champion of human rights and impartial defender of general faiths.” For many years people admired the U.N.’s famous Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a model for freedom. But now, says the Guardian, “disillusionment” has set in. Why the change?
Well, some accuse the U.N. Commission on Human Rights of behaving contrary to its intended purpose. For example, when the American representative returned from the commission’s 1976 session in Geneva, he was indignant over what had happened there. In a public protest on April 1, he made some startling accusations.
First, he charged, a proposed declaration on religious freedom “is slowly taking shape as a twisted text designed to limit religious freedom and individual belief on the pretext that religion breeds intolerance, racism, and colonialism, causing threats to peace and . . . state security.”
The delegate, Leonard Garment, asserted that the declaration as now worded “can serve to undermine the legitimacy of religious organizations and religious practices, and may indeed be used to legitimize their repression.”
Second, he attacked another resolution recently adopted at the 1976 session on the “right to life.” This resolution’s true import, he charged, is that “if the State determines in some manner that it is not ‘secure’, or . . . that there is a ‘threat to peace’, then it can now, with the formal endorsement of the UN Human Rights Commission, suspend all other human rights—speech, religious exercise, assembly, emigration—until the threat to the supreme ‘right to life’ passes.”
Hence, Mr. Garment complained, this resolution “permits human rights crimes to be committed openly, even proudly, in the name of peace and international security.”—Press release, United States Mission to the United Nations, April 1, 1976. (Italics added.)
Those are some strong charges. Will future events bear out Mr. Garment’s fears, or are these U.N. resolutions only empty political puffery that have no real force? Only time will tell for sure, but some of the events leading up to the leveling of these accusations may surprise you. You may be just as surprised to learn how religion is faring at the U.N.
The U.N. and Religion
Back in 1962 the General Assembly formally requested the Commission on Human Rights to prepare a declaration against religious intolerance. At the same time, it requested a declaration against racial discrimination. Just one year later, in 1963, the completed race declaration was proclaimed. But, strangely, after almost fifteen years, only the title and eight paragraphs in the preamble to the declaration on religion have been approved. Why is this?
During the 1973 debate, the Costa Rican delegate voiced his opinion that “an effort was being made in the [preparation] Committee to ensure that the Declaration never saw the light of day.” He thought that the work was being hampered by “all kinds of subterfuge.”1a
Yet, during those years of delay the emerging declaration was slowly taking a surprising turn. Official records of the debates indicate that many countries are evidently steering clear of a document giving religion complete freedom. A declaration that plainly outlawed all restrictions on religion might be diplomatically embarrassing to them.
To avoid this, their delegates have used many procedural objections and postponements, as well as contesting almost every word of the proposed declaration. This wearing-down process has often extracted compromises in wording that can be interpreted more than one way. Such compromises, says the U.S. delegate, are each “seemingly so minor that one can always justify not putting up a defense—just yet.”
In the next article we will note how these recent U.N. documents are being rechanneled from statements championing certain rights, into pronouncements that could even be used to curb those rights.
How Two U.N. Resolutions Got a Surprising Twist
THE forces who wish to alter the declaration on religious freedom started working right on the title. It was adjusted so that it could be interpreted two ways. Let us see how this is so.
When the General Assembly originally requested a “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance,” the emphasis was on protecting personal beliefs from intolerance by officials and others. But the current title is different. It calls for the “Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief.”2a As you can see, some might interpret this to cast “religion or belief” as the one causing “intolerance” that needs ‘eliminating’!
Consider another example. The compromise third paragraph of the preamble says that one of the reasons for taking measures against intolerance is that
“the disregard and infringement of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, have brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to mankind, especially where THEY serve as a means of foreign interference in the internal affairs of other States and amount to kindling hatred between peoples and nations.”3 (Capitals and italics added.)
If you are not sure what “THEY” are that cause “wars and great suffering . . . foreign interference . . . and amount to kindling hatred,” your confusion is just what the diplomats intended! Those who interpret the villainous “THEY” to be “disregard and infringement of human rights” can have their wish, while those who interpret “THEY” to be “religion or belief” can also have it their way.
The diplomatic maneuvering to adopt this ambiguous wording was almost comical. One European nation asked just what was meant by “they.” In response, an African delegate ‘suggested that they do not explain their interpretations before the vote.’ Then a delegate from one of the Soviet republics urged that the group ‘adopt the compromise and interpret it later,’ not indicating ‘what they meant by “they.”’ He said that ‘the definition was something for each state’ to interpret. Would you believe it? The compromise was adopted!
Only two more paragraphs were considered during the latest (1976) session. The fifth paragraph was cast in similar dual-meaning fashion and adopted. But much controversy arose over the preamble’s ninth and final paragraph. In the end, says the U.N. record, “the informal Working Group was unable to adopt a text.”4
Even so, the last of numerous “compromise” paragraphs proposed came down hard on religion. It declares that “freedom of religion and belief should not be abused as a means to pursue any ideology or practice contrary to” the goals of “world peace, social justice, friendship between peoples and States.”5 (Italics added.)
In other words, if a country chose to declare that freedom of religion was being “abused,” causing a threat to “world peace,” it could call upon this paragraph to back up restrictions on that religious freedom.
Meanwhile, the Commission on Human Rights also adopted another resolution that had similar implications for religious freedom and other rights—the “right to life” resolution.
Right to Life—Paramount?
This resolution is carefully worded to appear innocuous. “Peace and security,” for example, are mentioned fully eight times amid expressions such as those in the first operative paragraph: “Everyone has the right to live in conditions of international peace and security and fully to enjoy economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights.”
However, the very next paragraph contains what could be called a “sleeper” clause. It states that the Commission on Human Rights is convinced that “unqualified respect for, and the promotion of, human rights and fundamental freedoms require the existence of international peace and security.”6 (Italics added.)
But what about respect for human rights when peace and security do not exist? A Latin-American delegate raised this question, saying that he “hoped that tyrannical regimes would not invoke the text of that paragraph in order to continue violating human rights and fundamental freedoms under the pretext that international peace and security did not exist in the world.”
The French delegate had similar misgivings. If peace, he said, “existed everywhere in the world, would it necessarily bring about respect for human rights in all regions . . . Would it automatically destroy tyrannical régimes . . . Would it automatically put an end to discrimination . . . ?”7
Hence, the resolution appears to put the “right to live” in “peace and security” above all other human rights (including religious freedom) even if this calls for the exclusion of such other rights. Significantly, the delegate from a regime where human rights are routinely restricted said that his delegation had “voted for the draft resolution . . . considering that it reflected its point of view perfectly.”8
Upon his return from Geneva, the American representative made this observation about these recent U.N. actions:
“These items are not at all unusual. They are typical. . . . They occur wherever international meetings are held. They are occurring everywhere faster and more forcefully. They form a deadly pattern.”
Is there a message in all of this for the future of religion? Is there truly a “deadly pattern”? Or, are these resolutions merely hollow political pronouncements, without real power? As noted earlier, only time will tell.
However, the Commission on Human Rights debates did reveal some deep-seated feelings toward religion that are worth considering. Current events are also exposing the churches to increasingly biting criticism, even from the democratic West. The next article will note this trend and what it means for the future of religion.
a References are listed on page 10.
Religion’s Future Under U.N. Attack
CAN it be said in all honesty that religion is just an innocent, helpless victim of the foregoing resolutions? Or, frankly, have the world’s religions given the U.N. delegates reason to view them suspiciously? How many of the world’s religions that claim to be Christian, for example, have really lived up to the standards set by Christ? During the debates, the Commission on Human Rights raised some historical issues that an honest person would surely want to consider.
For example, in 1973 the representative of the Ukrainian SSR asserted that “history was full of cases of oppression, crusades, and blood-letting which one religion or another . . . carried out against persons of other faiths.” And an Arab delegate pointed out that in the eighteenth century “trade was followed by the Bible and the flag”9 of greedy exploiters. Other delegates voiced similar reservations about religious abuses.
But not just the Soviet bloc and a few others spoke of historical religious abuses. The Netherlands representative, for example, conceded that “missions had at times behaved in a deplorable manner and that there had been links between Christian churches and colonialism.”10 And during the 1975 debate, France’s delegate admitted that ‘in the history of France, the Protestants were persecuted by the Catholics, and that, as a consequence, there was still hatred between peoples and nations.’11