BAHRAIN AND THE DEFENSE OF SPIRITUAL LIBERTY
By René Wadlow
In a recent May 14, 2011 Appeal to the Kingdom of Bahrain concerning the systematic destruction of mosques used by the Shi’a citizens who are currently demonstrating for greater liberty and democracy, the Appeal pointed out that the destructions of places of worship is a direct violation of the spirit but also the letter of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The Declaration was proclaimed on November 25, 1981 and began “Considering that one of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations is that of the dignity and equality inherent in all human beings, and that all Member States have pledged themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”
The Declaration took nearly 20 years of difficult negotiations to draft. Preparation of the declaration began in 1962, and the Declaration was proclaimed in November 1981. Originally, UN negotiators had thought of drafting a single text which would have included the elimination of discrimination based on race, sex and religion. However, there was too great a diversity of views. It was easier to deal with the elements separately, all the more so that in the 1960s and 1970s in UN circles “race” was only the Apartheid policy of South Africa which everyone was, at least verbally, against.
Religion and belief were more difficult questions. The defense of spiritual liberty has been one of the most persistent of struggles, and there is no area of the world that does not have its martyrs to the cause. The struggle has often been against religious authorities who have wanted to maintain their faith within narrow limits claiming that they alone held the truth. It is significant that the words “dogmatic”, “sectarian”, and “inquisition” — all arise from the religious vocabulary. The stoning of the prophets and the auto-da-fe have been the answers of religious authorities — and often ordinary believers as well — to new ideas. Today, in most parts of the world, religious organizations can no longer put heretics to death. Now, religious organizations can only try to marginalize those who hold new ideas or to excommunicate them; the inquisition has lost its secular arm.
If religious organizations are no longer able to put to death heretics, the State has taken over the task of establishing orthodoxy and putting heretics to death. Although today, governments are the prime agents of repression against the spiritual life, governments are also timidly building the defenses of spiritual liberty.
The Declaration of November 25, 1981 builds upon Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
One of the most difficult areas in drafting the Declaration concerned the rights of the child to have “access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.” The Declaration went on to state that “The child shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, respect for freedom of religion or belief of others, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the services of his fellow men.”
Despite the rather nondramatic title of the Declaration, it is a milestone on the path of spiritual liberty. Thanks to the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, we who work for a world of understanding and solidarity have a UN text on which to base our efforts to defend spiritual liberty.
The Kingdom of Bahrain which has received support from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the form of tanks and soldiers and from other Gulf States in the form of police, has not yet relied to the AWC Appeal. It seems that they are preoccupied with arresting people rather than reading UN documents by which to set their standards. However the AWC will continue to remind them of the foundations of world law.
René Wadlow is Senior Vice-President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.