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Latin America—Rights and Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Viola Julia Davis
Parliament of Barbados

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

I would first like to thank the International Coalition for Religious Freedom for inviting me. I think it is a great honor, and a privilege to be here among all these people from all over the world. I am really going to be talking about Religious Freedom and Human Rights in Latin America. Of course, as one who lives in that area, I think I have some sort of concern there.

I will try to place the countries we refer to as Latin America, and consider the human rights agreements to which their governments consent, especially the ones that relate to religious freedom. I would then look at the issue of implementation of these agreements, or covenants, and the problems of violations. I would also consider the role of education, that is, the creation of a climate of tolerance, which is absolutely necessary to engender the pursuit of human rights and religious freedom. I will conclude with some thoughts on the political directorate’s will to administer justice and respect freedoms.

When one discusses Latin America, one is essentially thinking about countries in South America, and it’s environment, which are linguistically linked to the romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian. The overwhelming majority of Latin Americans are also nominally, or otherwise followers of the Roman Catholic religion. This area of the New World is served by the Organization of American States (OAS), as a regional arm of the United Nations. Yet, it must be noted that the OAS and the UN sometimes have separate agreements. These agreements may overlap, differ, or be congruent.

The OAS consists of 35 states. These include the North American nations of the United States of America and Canada. Twelve Caribbean countries, which are members of the British Commonwealth and former British colonies are also members. They are: Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kits and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago. There were also French-speaking Haiti, and Surinam, a Dutch-speaking nation on the South American mainland. The remaining 19 territories, all in South and Central America are thus the focus of this paper. These are the quintessential Latin American countries. These 19 territories are: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. Cuba was expelled from the OAS, and now seeks re-entry.

Human Rights Agreements

The OAS is the world’s oldest regional organization, dating back to the First International Conference of American States, held in Washington from October 1889 to April 1890. This meeting approved the establishment of the International Union of American Republics. The charter of the OAS was signed in Bogota, in 1948, and entered into force in December 1951. The charter was subsequently amended by the Protocol of Buenos Aires, signed in 1967, which entered into force in February 1970, and by the Protocol of Cartagena, the NES, signed in 1985, which entered into force in November 1988. In 1992, the Protocol of Washington was signed, and in 1993, the Protocol of Managua was signed. These two instruments entered into force upon ratification by two-thirds of the member states. The OAS has granted permanent observer status to 30 states, as well as the European Union.

The basic purposes of the OAS are as follows: to strengthen the peace and security of the continent; to promote and consolidate representative democracy, with due respect for the principle of non-intervention; to prevent possible causes of difficulties, and to ensure the specific settlement of disputes that may arise among the member states; to provide for common action on the part of those states in the event of aggression; to seek the solution of political, judicial, and economic problems that may arise among them; to promote by cooperative action, economic, social, and cultural development; and to achieve an effective limitation of conventional weapons, that will make it possible to devote the largest amount of resources to the economic and social development of the member states.

OAS accomplishes its purposes through the following organs:

The General Assembly; the Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs; the permanent councils, which include the Inter-American Economic and Social Council, and the Inter-American Council for Education, Science and, Culture; the Inter-American Judicial Committee; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; the Secretariat; the specialized conferences, the specialized organizations, and other entities established by the General Assembly.

I would now like to consider the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. According to the charter of the OAS, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a principal organ of the organization, with the primary function of promoting the observance and protection of human rights. It also serves as the consultative organ of the organization in these matters. The council of the organization approved the statue of the commission on May 25, 1960.

Under the provisions of the statute, Article 2, the commission was established as an autonomous entity of the Organization of the American States. Human rights were understood to be those set out in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Bogota, 1948. It must be noted that the Commission also continued to cooperate with the United Nations Agencies charged with protecting and promoting human rights. These include the Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Committee, provided for in the Optional Protocol to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations, and, in particular, that committee’s working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances. Such cooperation will assist the commission in dealing with similar cases that are referred to it.

The commission has maintained a close cooperative relationship with the Inter American Institute of Human Rights, thus the OAS and UN can be said to be pursuing, broadly, the same goals in human rights. Yet, since the OAS is conscious of Latin America’s indigenous peoples, it has, at it’s ninety-fifth regular session, approved the proposed American Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, pursuant to recommendation of the General Assembly to that end, (AG RES-1022-X-1X0-89).

Speaking of religious freedom, Article 10 says:

1) Indigenous peoples have the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and spiritual practice, and to exercise them both publicly and privately; 2) The states shall take necessary measures to prohibit attempts to forcefully convert indigenous peoples or to impose on them beliefs against their will; 3) In collaboration with the indigenous peoples concerned, the states shall adopt effective measures to insure that their sacred sights, including burial sights, are preserved, respected, and protected. When sacred graves and relics have been appropriated by state institutions, they shall be returned; 4) The states shall encourage respect by all people for the integrity of indigenous spiritual symbols, practices, sacred ceremonies, expressions, and protocols.

I think that one should applaud these freedoms and rights, in light of the new evangelizing zeal of the predominant Christian Roman Catholic ethos. This article also attempts to protect the sanctity of the sacred graves and relics, and to respect the symbols, practices, and ceremonies of these ancient peoples.

The UN charter was adopted in 1945. The international community pledged itself to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. These entitlements were defined with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nation’s General Assembly on 10 December 1948, as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations. Although the declaration itself is not legally binding, most of the rights it recognized have been made so by two international covenants: on civil and political rights, and on economic, social, and cultural rights.

These rights, of course, include freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The relevant articles in religion are enshrined in the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. This was proclaimed by General Assembly Resolution 3655, of 25 November 1951.

There are six articles, from which I will quote excerpts. The relevant articles on religion, of course, state in Article I:

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, in public or private, to manifest his religion, belief, or worship or observation, or practice or teaching.

Article II says:

No one shall be subject to discrimination by any state institution, group of persons, or person on the grounds of religion or other belief.

Article IV states:

All states shall take an active measure to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, in the recognition or exercise or enjoyment of human rights, and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, economic, political, social, and cultural life.

Article VI looks at the rights of parents and children, and, in part, states:

The children shall be protected from any form of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. They shall be brought up in the spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, respect for freedom of religion or belief of others, and equal consciousness that his energy and talents shall be devoted to the service of his fellow man.

Article VI is very detailed, comprehensive, and unequivocal in terms of the practical processes in the pursuit of religious freedom. It looks at the rights to assemble, to establish charities and humanitarian institutions, the right to disseminate relevant publications, to teach a religion or belief, to solicit and receive voluntary financial and other contributions, to train, appoint and elect leaders, and finally to observe, and celebrate holidays with appropriate ceremony.

Implementation of the Declaration

In a UN report, submitted by Mr. Abdelfattah Amor (E/CN.4/1995/9), it was noted that there were violations of the principle of non-discrimination in religion and belief. It involves, first, allegations of discriminatory legislation, and regulations in regards to religion and belief. For example, in Argentina, new and extremely strict provisions were allegedly introduced with respect to the activities of non-Roman Catholic religious organizations. There were violations of Article I, cases of prohibition of proselytizing, of possessing of certain religious objects, and cases of forced conversion. There were violations of Articles II and III, which deal with discrimination. These violations have increased substantially each year. There are cases of discrimination in employment, and education, and an atmosphere of intolerance toward certain religious communities. The violations are often the result of discriminatory laws, both national and local, and regulations.

The report observes that Christianity is the religion most often referred to in terms of violations—over sixteen percent. Ten percent of the category “Other Religions and Religious Groups,” report violations against the Ahmadiyah (an Islamic sect), Baha’is, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Hare Krishna, Scientology, the Family of Love, and spiritualist religions. This category, which comes second as far as violations, includes a number of highly diverse and numerically small religious groups. In other words, these are cases where minorities are suffering from religious intolerance. Islam is the third largest religion cited as being discriminated against. It accounts for over nine percent, close behind the minority group. The remaining religions, in decreasing order are: Buddhism, at over three percent; Judaism, at over one percent; and Hinduism, at less than one percent.

Since the fifty-first session of the Commission on Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur has sent communications to forty-six states, five of which were from Latin America—Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua. Of these, attacks have taken place against the Christian community in Mexico and Nicaragua, and against the Seventh Day Adventists in Cuba. There were violations against all religious groups, except the official religious group, which was Roman Catholicism in Argentina and Bolivia.

The Role of Education

There is no doubt that education must play a pivotal role in the creation of an atmosphere of tolerance. This education must begin with the young. It must teach rights, freedoms, and values. It must be interdisciplinary and interfaith. It must teach the values of diversity, and respect for the individual’s right to freedom of thought.

It is to the schools, the policy makers, and the involvement of communities, that we must turn in the pursuit of the rights and freedoms which we can only enjoy when our youth are given the tools to do so. Curricula and textbooks for primary and secondary educational institutions must be produced to obtain these lofty ends.

The Political Directorate’s Will to Administer Justice and Respect Freedoms

Ultimately, it is the machinery of the state, which must move to protect and implement policies for the development of those rights so bravely, proclaimed in the UN and OAS documents. If domestic agencies cannot and will not act, recourse must be given to external bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights, to see that they are applied.

A variety of practices and principles will depend upon the political directorate. Member states must take steps that advance and consolidate the administration of justice in their domestic legal systems. They must take steps to protect the integrity and independence of members of the judiciary in the performance of their functions, especially in relation to the processing of human rights violations. Judges must be free to decide matters before them without any influence, inducement, pressures, threats, or interference. Every human rights violation should be subjected to prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation, and those responsible must submit to the appropriate processes of prosecution and punishment.

I end by quoting from the Conclusions and Recommendations on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief:

The implementation of the declaration and the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief is inseparable from the general question of respect for all human rights, which cannot be truly promoted in the absence of democracy and development.