Commons Library papers, Committee reports, parliamentary material and UK Government press releases since Crimea was seized by pro-Russian forces in 2014.
What is the UN Declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance?
On 25 November 1981, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 36/55, by which it proclaimed the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The draft resolution was adopted earlier, on 9 November 1981, without a vote, having been the subject of extensive consultation with Member States. The core principles of the Declaration are set out in Article 1(1):
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
And Article 2(1):
No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons, or person on the grounds of religion or belief.
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the United Nations’ fundamental rights. The above principles are reflected in other UN instruments, notably Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the text of which is broadly the same as Article 1(1) of the 1981 Declaration. Additionally, under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to manifest it. This also requires that State Parties respect the rights of parents to ensure the education of their children in accordance with their own convictions.
UN declarations are not international treaties; rather, they are statements of agreed standards of action and moral obligation. The website of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights provides a useful overview of international standards on freedom of religion or belief.
In domestic law, there are substantial legal protections against discrimination based on religion or belief.
Relevant domestic law
The Equality Act 2010
Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010) defines “religion or belief” as a protected characteristic. This definition encompasses both religious and philosophical belief. For the latter, in order to be protected, the belief must be:
genuinely held; be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available; be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
The EqA 2010 prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination based on religion or belief. Direct discrimination occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another because of their religion or belief. Indirect discrimination occurs when an organisation or person has a policy or working practice that applies to everyone but disadvantages some people because of their religion or belief. The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides an example:
you are Jewish and you finish early on Fridays in order to observe the Sabbath. Your manager has changed the weekly team meetings from Wednesday afternoons to Friday afternoons and you are therefore often absent
Religious discrimination is often the subject of high-profile litigation, for example, regarding the protection of certain types of philosophical belief, or the manifestation of religious belief at work through religious clothing or jewellery. Often, these cases entail consideration of human rights law.
Human rights law
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which is incorporated into domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998, provides that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, including the right to manifest that religion or belief, through worship, teaching, practice and observance, either in public or private.
The right to hold or change such a belief is absolute and unconditional and cannot be interfered with by the State. The right to manifest a belief is not absolute, since it may impact on others. Any limitation on the right of manifest one’s religion or belief must be prescribed by law, necessary and proportionate in order to protect public safety; public order; health or morals; or, the rights and freedoms of others.
Action is proportionate if it is appropriate and no more than necessary to address the problem concerned.
Article 9 is often relied on in conjunction with Article 14, which prohibits discrimination in the enjoyment of Convention rights on the basis of any status, including religion and political or other opinion.
Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Convention provides that States should respect the rights of parents to ensure the education of their children in accordance with their religious and philosophical convictions.
The scope of Article 9 is wide. It protects both religious and non-religious opinions and convictions. However, not all opinions or convictions are necessarily protected. As with the EqA 2010, a personal or collective conviction must reach a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance in order to fall within the scope of Article 9. Provided that condition is satisfied, States should not seek to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs, or the ways in which those beliefs are expressed.
Equality and Human Rights Commission – Religion or belief: is the law working?
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is Great Britain’s national equality body, responsible for overseeing equality law (Northern Ireland has its own body of equality law and separate commission). Under section 11 of the Equality Act 2006, the EHRC has a legal duty to “monitor the effectiveness of the equality and human rights enactments”. Pursuant to this duty, in December 2016 the EHRC published a report on whether:
Great Britain’s (GB) equality and human rights legal framework sufficiently protects individuals with a religion or belief and the distinctiveness of religion or belief organisations, while appropriately protecting the rights of other groups protected under the Equality Act
The report concluded that:
the Equality Act and the HRA provide sufficient protection for individuals with and without a religion or belief, religion or belief organisations and other groups protected by the Equality Act. We found that the definition of religion or belief in the Equality Act is sufficiently broad to ensure protection to many religions or beliefs. We found that the existing indirect discrimination model and the concept of balancing rights in human rights law where there is an apparent conflict between individuals or between an individual and the public interest already provide sufficient protection for people manifesting a religion or belief, and that no additional duty of reasonable accommodation is required.
However, the report did also note that the definition of “belief” in equality and human rights law is somewhat unclear, causing uncertainty about the extent of protection afforded to certain political and ethical beliefs. The EHRC felt that clarification would be best supplied through the development of case law, and signalled its intention to “proactively seek out appropriate test cases”.
International standards on freedom of religion or belief, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [accessed 24 November 2021]
Equality and Human Rights Commission, Religion or belief: is the law working? 2016
Debate on 24 July 2014: International Compliance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Concerning Freedom of Belief, House of Lords Library Note, 2014
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