Heiner Bielefeldt, Nazila Ghanea, and Michael Wiener. Freedom of Religion or Belief: An International Law Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 660 pp.

Reviewed by: Sania Ismailee (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi).

Freedom of religion has been in the limelight all over the world in the past few years. It grabbed our attention due to controversies regarding the content of different legal documents of various governments (democratic and non-democratic) around the world or due to the manner in which religious values and practices have been empirically treated by both State and non-State actors. Several issues are at the centre of global attention, including women’s rights, heresy laws, transgender issues, ethnic cleansing, ill-treatment of religious minorities, ban on display of religious symbols, xenophobia, and so on. Freedom of Religion or Belief: An International Law Commentary is the first academic commentary which treats the issue of freedom of religion or belief as a human right (v). Freedom of religion or belief was included in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 and in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1966. Published in 2016, the Freedom of Religion or Belief marks fifty years after the adoption of ICCPR and sixty-eight years after the inclusion of religious freedom as a human right in UDHR. The authors, Heiner Bielefeldt, Nazila Ghanea, and Michael Wiener, rely on their academic expertise and practical experience to make a brilliant contribution to the scholarly discourse on freedom of religion or belief from an international legal perspective. The authors worked with the United Nations and conducted research on in human rights, international law, and freedom of religion. Their in-depth knowledge of the subject is reflected in this thoroughly researched book.

Fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, Kazakhstan. photo credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The commentary offers a detailed analysis of interpretation and implementation of relative international standards, including ICCPR. It is structured according to the thematic categories of the Special Rapporteur’s framework for communications. Freedom of Religion or Belief also discusses relevant jurisprudence from Treaty Bodies, which is evident from the table of cases and legislation given at the beginning of the commentary. The book is comprehensive because it includes relevant national cases and legislations and is not confined to the cases and legislation of these bodies. It is divided into five parts with further subdivisions. These parts comprise of discussion on freedom of religion or belief, discrimination, vulnerable groups, intersection of freedom of religion or belief with other human rights, and cross-cutting issues. Acknowledging the selective use of commentaries, the co-authors have structured each section into five parts: (i) international instruments, (ii) introduction, (iii) historical background, (iv) mandate practice of UN Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies, and (v) issues of interpretation. In order to facilitate pragmatic reading, the commentary provides examples to make each chapter stand on its own.

Out of the five parts of the commentary, the first part discusses freedom of religion or belief. It deals with one of the most controversial topics— the freedom of an individual to change one’s religion or belief— over which Governments have expressed apprehensions due to the consequences of this right. By exercising this right, one may jeopardize national cohesion and social harmony. In this section, the authors elaborate on the right to manifest one’s religion or belief through places of worship or religious symbols, to establish educational institutions, to maintain clergy and charitable institutions, and observe holy days as holidays. The authors also discuss issues like dietary preferences and ritual slaughter, the imposition of sharia, protection and preservation of religious sites and sacred sites of indigenous people, restriction on dress codes, like burqa ban, parents’ right to impart religious instruction, and conscientious objection.

The second part of the book, elaborates on the discrimination on the basis of religion or belief and further covers the role of State, whether the State explicitly endorses a religion or claims to be neutral. It also covers interreligious discrimination. The authors also comment on the role of non-State actors and authorities in either accentuating or combating discriminatory practices and attitudes. Interestingly, international human rights law does not propose a specific model to govern State’s relationship with religion, thereby it does not prohibit State religion. Nevertheless, States are required to honour certain human rights.

The third part of the book covers vulnerable groups or, in the words of the authors, people living in vulnerable situations, like women, persons deprived of their liberty, refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, children, minorities, and migrant workers. This section recognizes the presence of “new minorities” against the “old minorities” (460), which belong to established religious communities. It also focuses on family laws in relation to women. Further, it suggests that the State must empower individuals to facilitate free development of their religious identities.

The commentary does not limit its scope by treating freedom of religion or belief in isolation. The broad scope of the commentary is obvious in the penultimate part, which examines conflicts arising as a result of the intersection between freedom of religion or belief and other human rights like freedom of expression, right to liberty, and prohibition of inhuman treatment. An example of the apparent antagonism between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression found in the book is the criticism of cruel Islamic punishments. Islamic countries would not appreciate such freedom of expression. However, according to Special Rapporteur’s report, freedom of religion or belief does not mean freedom from criticism. Nevertheless, freedom of religion and belief has its own limitations, it cannot be used to justify violating freedom of others.

The fifth, and final, part of the commentary deals with the cross-cutting issues, such as limitations on human rights law, its implementation at the national level, and international provisions on the derogation of human rights by States in times of emergency.

Two main strengths of the commentary are found in its structure and the first two introductory chapters. The former relies on the Special Rapporteur’s framework for communication and lends the commentary a comprehensive character. The latter two chapters clarify what constitutes freedom of religion or belief in international human rights discourse. Given that freedom and religion are essentially contested concepts, they require clarification and cannot be used loosely. Freedom of religion or belief does not mean freedom or protection for religious customs, traditions, and practices such as the truth claims of their holy persons or scriptures. Instead, it implies the guarantee of non-discrimination of humans on religious grounds. It thus acknowledges religion and beliefs as identity-shaping convictions that demand respect. The human rights discourse appreciates pluralism and does not favour conceptualization of religion on the basis of universalism or homogeneity.

However, a limitation of the book’s structure is the insertion of issues, that require a detailed discussion, into existing chapters. For instance, the brief discussion of LGBTQ within the section on women and the brief section on indigenous people within the chapter on minorities are crucial and would have benefited from being stand-alone chapters. The authors express awareness of this limitation in the preface. Despite this limitation, Freedom of Religion or Belief advances significant new historiographical interpretations by filling the gap in existing academic literature through its commentary on freedom of religion or belief from the perspective of international law, specifically United Nations legal instruments. It is evident that a lack of an academic commentary on this human right from the perspective of UN forums and mechanisms motivated the authors to write it.

Freedom of Religion or Belief provides a rich commentary replete with cases and legislations. It is a must-read for diplomats, parliamentarians, legal practitioners, academics, human rights defenders, and members of religious communities, whose role is immaterial towards the realization of freedom of religion or belief. True to its ambition, the book provides access to various facets of freedom of religion or belief for effective policy decisions as well as for students of religion. It offers a ground-breaking, objective account, which has brought together the patchwork of law on religious freedom as a human right.