The right to freedom of 'religion or belief' ('belief meaning non-religious life stances) like other human rights, is a political construct, and thus often used for political reasons.
Have you looked at the number of human rights pronouncements, including the right to freedom of Belief throughout the world lately? The globe is awash with Declarations, treaties, charters, Understandings and Bills bearing lists of our Rights including the right to freedom of 'religion or belief'.
Governments love signing on to them and declaring their intention to uphold them forever more. 192 states have signed up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a condition of membership of the United Nations.
That is almost every nation in the world has signed on to the UDHR, including Zimbabwe, Burma, Syria, and Iran. Notably absent is the Vatican, which calls itself a sovereign state, and is a totalitarian theocracy.
The UDHR was nothing short of a revolution: indeed probably the greatest revolution there ever has been.
Before it was conceived, liberties, rights and favours were granted by governments to those people they preferred. Civil rights applied only to people with the requisite status. Of course more enlightened countries established civil liberties for all citizens.
But these liberties could be withdrawn or changed if the government so chose, so people were dependent on the good will of their particular government.
The adoption by nations of universal human rights arose from the vision of those who were appalled at the human suffering and destruction caused by two world wars.
They wanted to end the tyranny of belligerent state sovereignty.
For the first time an individual is defined, not through being the subject of a monarch or sovereign state, nor because of his or her legal, physical, mental, social, economic or any other status.
This was the creation of the universal, autonomous human being, no longer determined by a national government, but now having a positive existence, and basic rights through international decree. The UN also set up the mechanism for nations to follow this in the Universal Covenants on civil and political rights, and on social, economic and cultural rights.
This was indeed the stuff of revolution! It brought a whole new perspective to liberties. Dignity, personal integrity and autonomy were declared to be essential to all human beings, regardless of who or where they are. They were not just liberties (that is, favours granted by government) but ‘rights’ entitlements rather than privileges.
It is important to note that when you grant someone a right, you grant them access to some favour. But, just as importantly, you also impose a corresponding duty on someone else.
The very nature of a right means that someone is obliged to act in a way that permits you to exercise it. The right to access an area means someone is obliged to let you in, and the right to a fair trial means someone must take the necessary steps for you to have a fair trial. A right by its very nature involves a duty on the part of someone else. It is meaningless unless it tells us who has the right, what they can do, and who must ensure they can do it.
At the individual level, too, rights require reciprocity. Rights carry with them obligations to respect the entitlements of others. Vested interests of individuals are subject to freedom from the imposition of ideas and practices of others.
The power of governments and interest groups is thus limited. They now have an obligation to provide citizens with the rights they sign up to. They cede some of their power to the people, so while there is a widespread push for countries to recognise human rights that is not always convenient.
Here then is the rub: when you get down to the national level, governments are not good at following human rights. And why? Because they really don’t want to!
Even when the pioneering world-shattering Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being compiled, the evidence was there. States involved in drafting it were often more interested in preserving their historical customs, religions, power and convenience, at the expense of ensuring truly genuine, equal enjoyment by all citizens of the rights that were being advocated.
So, it is good for governments to sign up to human rights, but the thing is to also implement them.