UN Expert: Respect the Right to Convert

A United Nations (UN) independent expert recently highlighted threats to a key religious human right: conversion. Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, declared to the UN General Assembly, “The right of conversion and the right not to be forced to convert or reconvert belong to the internal dimension of a person’s religious or belief-related conviction, which is unconditionally protected under international human rights law.”

The Special Rapporteur faulted governments, as well as non-state actors acting out on “widespread societal prejudices.” For example, he noted:

Many States impose tight legislative or administrative restrictions on communicative outreach activities. Many such restrictions are conceptualised and implemented in a flagrantly discriminatory manner, for instance, in the interest of further strengthening the position of the official religion or dominant religion of the country while further marginalising the situation of minorities. Members of religious communities that have a reputation of being generally engaged in missionary activities may also face societal prejudices that can escalate into paranoia, sometimes even leading to acts of mob violence and killings.

In his accompanying report, Mr. Bielefeldt analyzed the right to convert, the right to not be coerced into conversion, the right to seek the conversion of others without force, and the rights of children and parents in conversion. 

He urged nations to consistently respect this fundamental right protected under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “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.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President Government Relations


Published: November 16, 2012