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Religious Freedom and the New World Order PDF Print E-mail

Michimasa Irie
Aoyama Gakuin University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

This is the American century. After the victory of the Allied powers, more specifically that of the United States, in World War II, the national values of America, supported by its economic and military power—including nuclear weapons—have provided the direction of the postwar world. These values were built into the basic international treaties and international documents, including the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and became the leading ideas upon which the postwar world has been constructed until today.

The United States led the creation of the United Nations. The UN Charter emphasizes fundamental human rights and human dignity, proclaiming in its preamble that its purpose is “to reaffirm faith in human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and nations large and small.”

(The Charter put forward equal rights and self-determination of peoples as principles of international order, stating as its purpose “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” At the time of the enactment of the Covenant of the League of Nations, Japan, the only advanced nation in Asia at the time, proposed the inclusion of a clause to eliminate racial discrimination, which was rejected because of opposition from the United States and European nations. Yet following World War II, this was incorporated into the UN Charter as “the equal rights of peoples,” one of the principles of the postwar international order. This, together with the principle of self-determination declared in the Atlantic Charter and reaffirmed by Yalta Communique V: Declaration on Liberated Europe, became important UN principles, which subsequently promoted the independence of colonies.)

On December 10, 1948, shortly after the founding of the United Nations, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with support from 48 nations and abstention by 8 nations, including 6 communist nations, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. That declaration is a lofty declaration of human rights drafted under the leadership of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. It declares that the advent of a world in which human beings enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want, is the highest aspiration of common people (Preamble); that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (Article 18); and that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers (Article 19); everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (Article 20); everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives (Article 21).

The United States and Western Europe sought a world of freedom, human rights, and democracy, while the Soviet Union and other communist nations adopted a Communist Party dictatorship, enabled only by the suppression and denial of these values. The latter viewed the West as a hazard and sought the expansion of communist rule. It was natural that these two camps would manifest in the form of the Cold War—their essential incompatibility and mutual denial within and outside the United Nations after World War II.

The postwar U.S. peacekeeping vision of collective security through the United Nations was paralyzed for a long time during the Cold War confrontation. However, during the Bush administration, which promoted U.S.-USSR dialogue toward ending the Cold War, Iraq suddenly invaded Kuwait, and the UN Security Council adopted a resolution authorizing military action. The United States, leading multinational forces and empowered by a UN resolution, repelled the invasion and restored peace. With this, President Bush proclaimed the arrival of a new world order in which all nations work together under the UN collective security efforts to maintain peace, and he expressed hope for a bright future.

On February 4, 1991, President Bush defined the term new world order as one under which nations work together for the realization of peace, security, freedom, and rule of law. He also stated, on April 22, 1991, that what makes Americans is not ties of territory or lineage but the conviction that all human beings must be free wherever they are. This conviction has been eternal and deep-rooted since the founding of the nation. It is also a commitment to the world inherent in the words of the Declaration of Independence. The new world we are about to enter is a world where this commitment to freedom is realized; he elaborated that the new world order is one that reflects American ideals (of freedom) maintained since the founding of the nation.

In summary, the new world order that President Bush has been referring to since September 1990 replaces the bipolar Cold War era and is one where peace is maintained by the UN collective security mechanism, and nations cooperate on the common foundation of freedom, human rights, democracy, rule of law, and market economy.

In fact, President Bush skillfully induced the liberalization and democratization of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, and gained decisive victory in the Cold War. Ever since, the United States has reigned over the world as the sole superpower with the American principles of freedom, human rights, and democracy. Even if the bubble of the American economy ruptures in the near future, the United States will recover in time and continue to lead the world with its principles, making the 21st century another American century.

America promoted its foreign policy toward the Soviet Union—with long-term strategic objectives of liberalization and democratization of the communist bloc—since the beginning of the Cold War. America brought Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union into the Helsinki Agreement to promote respect for freedom and human rights. The Soviet Union’s economic self-destruction was accelerated by the arms race with the Reagan administration. President Bush used the bait of economic assistance and finally brought about liberalization of Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The first international document that drove a wedge of freedom and human rights into the communist bloc was the 1975 Final Act of Helsinki adopted by 35 nations of the Conference for Security and Cooperation of Europe (CSCE). The Final Act of the Helsinki Agreement includes even freedom of thought, which is not mentioned in any communist country’s constitution. The agreement states:

The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

Soviet dissident Dr. Andrei Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1975 for his pioneering role in the efforts to realize the ideals of freedom and human rights declared in the Helsinki Agreement.

President Bush demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev—who was promoting perestroika, glasnost, demokratizatsiya, and novoye myshleniye—introduce freedom, human rights, and democracy; cooperate with UN collective security; and make a transition to a market economy as conditions for large-scale technical and financial aid to the Soviet Union. Not only East European nations but Gorbachev’s Soviet Union as well signed the CSCE Charter of Paris for a New Europe on November 21, 1990. The Paris Charter declared freedom of thought, conscience, religion or faith, freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, freedom of movement, and human rights as inherent and inalienable rights. It stated, “The protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedom is the first responsibility of government.” In signing the Paris Charter, Gorbachev tried to project the communist Soviet Union as a nation of freedom and democracy.

The Soviet People’s Congress held on September 5, 1991, immediately after the coup attempt (the last session in the Soviet era), adopted the Declaration of Human Rights and Freedom as a law, including Article 7 which guaranteed freedom of conscience and faith. Then the Soviet Union disappeared as a nation in December. Yeltsin’s Russia, which took over, enacted a constitution that includes freedom, human rights, and democracy and states that human rights and freedom are supreme values (Article 2). The other 14 republics, although with individual differences, became far more free and democratic than when they were under the Soviet Union.

President Clinton stated in his second inaugural address on January 20, 1997, “For the very first time in all of history, more people on this planet live under democracy than dictatorship.”

According to an analysis published by Freedom House at the end of 1997, 1.26 billion people, or 22 percent of the world’s population, currently live in free societies; 2.28 billion people, or 39 percent, live in relatively free societies; and 2.28 billion people, or 39 percent, live in countries that are not free. As of the end of 1997, 61 percent of the world’s nations, namely, 117 nations, were democratic nations whose leaders were chosen by election. Also, 55 percent of the world’s population live under democratically elected leadership.

In terms of percentage of the number of nations, the ratio of democratic nations was 39.5 percent before the liberalization of Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this figure increased to 46.8 percent in 1993, after its collapse, and to 61.3 percent in 1998. The democratization of Eastern Europe and collapse of the Soviet system gave birth to many new democratic nations, naturally raising the ratio of democracies in the world.

Liberalization, self-determination, and independence of people in captive nations took a similar course as what happened in the capitalist world after World War II. The imperialistic colonial domination by victorious nations of the war, such as the United States and European nations, as well as by defeated nations like Japan, Germany, and Italy, was challenged by the rising demands of colonial inhabitants for self-determination and independence. Independence of the colonies spread from Asia to the Middle and Near East and to Africa. The same historical tide undermined the communist bloc, we might say, with a big time lag.

On the eve of World War II, the number of nations in the world was 71, including 2 communist nations. The ratio of the land area of capitalist nations’ colonies was 29.1 percent, and the population of their colonies comprised some 31.9 percent of the world population. Almost without exception, these colonial inhabitants were discriminated against by the colonial powers and placed in low status. Those unfortunate inhabitants, numbering 32 percent of the world’s population, finally came to attain their own nation-states as a result of World War II. Thus, these so-called second-class citizens almost completely vanished from the capitalist bloc in the space of a dozen or so years after the war.

The communist bloc, which occupied 17.4 percent of the world’s land area and 7.8 percent of the world’s population before the war, expanded to 17 nations after the war until the communization of Afghanistan in April 1978. It then came to occupy 26.9 percent of the world’s land area and 33.2 percent of the population. Freedom, human rights, and democracy were denied or suppressed for the 33.2 percent of the world’s population under communist domination.

Yet, due to the liberalization and democratization of Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, as well as other peripheral communist regimes, communist rule is now confined to the four nations of China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba. These nations have only 7.5 percent of the world’s land area and 23.1 percent of its population combined. In the last several years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, 572 million people, or 10.1 percent of the world’s population, have been liberated from communist domination.

Accordingly, the American principles of freedom, human rights, and democracy endured the Cold War, and with victory in the Cold War they are steadily spreading throughout the world.

At this point, I would like to briefly summarize the “American values” that the United States has attempted to spread in the world through the United Nations and U.S. foreign policy.

The U.S. national ideals maintained since its founding have often been referred to as American democracy. It does not refer merely to the political system, such as the representative parliamentary system, separation of powers, and the principle that sovereignty resides in the people. It is the American system of values, which encompasses freedom, equality, and basic human rights, on which the nation stands.

The common heritage that forms the American ideal is manifested in four documents: (1) The Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, (2) the Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, by President Lincoln; (3) the Constitution; and (4) the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This Declaration of Independence, rafted by Thomas Jefferson and others, also upholds freedom and human rights. It declared the independence of the 13 states of America, stating they will organize government with the consent of the governed to secure these rights.

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address appealed to the responsibility of those who survived the war. It stated that the devotion of those who died in the war should not be in vain, so let us revive the nation as a nation of freedom under God, and it emphasized government of the people, by the people, for the people. How concisely these simple words express the essence of democracy.

The U.S. Constitution, which went into effect in 1778, established the institutions of a democratic federal republic. It emphasizes that securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves, and our posterity is the purpose of the Constitution.

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution, effective in 1791, had to do with freedom and human rights and therefore were also called The Bill of Rights. The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In other words, the Bill of Rights lists the freedom of speech and publishing and rights of assembly and petition as freedoms that cannot be restricted even by laws, and places religious freedom in front of them all. Religious freedom is the very foundation of American democracy. Religious freedom is a universal human right based on the intrinsic dignity of every person. In fact, because the United States was built up by people (Puritans, Catholics, and Quakers, for example) who were escaping religious persecution its founding fathers mentioned religious freedom at the very beginning of the Bill of Rights. The United States has been, until this day, the world champion in terms of the promotion and protection of freedom of conscience, religious freedom, and religious tolerance, directly through its diplomatic actions or indirectly through the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the creation of which the United States played the leading role.

This clearly indicates that among the democratic ideals America has cherished in building up the country over the past 222 years, religious freedom holds a very important position. Religious freedom was particularly important among the American values during the time of the founding of the country, along with such values as freedom and human rights. Even now, the United States positions religious freedom as being the most important among its values—freedom, human rights, and democracy—and the country makes efforts to promote and protect religious freedom in its diplomatic activities across the world. On May 14, the House of Representatives passed the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (H.R. 2431) by an overwhelming majority of 375 to 41. This act requires the Department of State to set up an organization to monitor religious persecution, to submit reports to Congress, and to impose economic sanctions, including a ban on exports, on countries that persecute people for religious reasons. American respect for freedom, human rights, and democracy, including religious freedom, is now firmly established in international laws, in the form of treaty laws and customary law, including the above-mentioned Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1966, and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief that was unanimously approved by the UN General Assembly.

The ICCPR stipulates in detail religious freedom as an international norm, as follows:

Paragraph 1 of Article 18 states,

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his or her choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

Paragraph 2 of the same article states,

No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his or her freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his or her choice.

Paragraph 3 of the same article states,

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and which are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or the morals or fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Paragraph 4 of the same article states,

The State Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

Needless to say, the UN Charter stipulates that human rights must be secured irrespective of race, sex, language, or religion. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 2 of the ICCPR states that human rights must be respected without discrimination by race, skin color, sex, language, religion, political or other views, national or social background, assets, birth, or any other indication of social standing.

Article 27 of the ICCPR includes a paragraph to protect religious minorities, which states that in countries where there are minorities in terms of ethnicity, religion, or language, anyone who belongs to a minority has the right to have his or her own culture, and, together with other members of the minority group, to worship or practice his or her own religion, or use his or her own language.

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief of 1981 defines in Paragraph 2 of Article 2 religious intolerance and discrimination as

all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief in reference to all kinds of discrimination, rejection, restriction, or preferential treatment based on religion or belief that have either the objective or the effect of preventing people from acknowledging, benefiting from, or practicing human rights based on equality or basic freedom

and asks that all such intolerance and discrimination be abolished.

Although this principle of religious freedom is now integrated into international law, this does not mean that the international community has advanced to the level in which every country fully observes religious freedom. The U.S. Department of State, which aims to make religious freedom prevail throughout the world, formed the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad in November 1996. The committee submitted an interim report on January 23, 1998, in which it pointed out the problematical situations regarding religious freedom in the world and recommended the action to be taken by the United States to protect and promote religious freedom. For instance, according to the report, more than 2,000 Baha’is have been killed as a result of persecution of the religion since 1979 in Iran, and people who believe in Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism have also been persecuted there.

The governments of socialist countries, such as China, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam, acknowledge the freedom of worship restrictively, based on the official guidelines and control of each government. But religious activities are either prohibited or very strictly controlled in these countries. In Vietnam, Buddhists or Christians who carry out activities independent of an officially acknowledged temple or church have been arrested or harassed. In China, members of religious organizations that are officially acknowledged by the government practice their religion within such organizations. But Tibetan Buddhists, the Muslim Uighur tribe, and Protestants and Catholics who are not officially acknowledged by the government have been widely harassed, detained, imprisoned, or persecuted.

When the Dalai Lama appointed a Tibetan Buddhist as the Panchen Lama, the Chinese government refuted the decision by detaining the eight-year-old boy. In Cuba, activities by religious groups are restricted, although worshipping is not generally restricted.

In Afghanistan, people are deprived of the right not to practice religion. The Taliban force people to observe only one, highly controversial interpretation of Muslim beliefs. The government prescribes attending mosque as one of the duties of men; denies women freedom in education, employment, and movement; and forces women to wear a chador outside their home. In Saudi Arabia, where Islam is the national religion and the government consists of Sunni Muslims, the activities of other religious groups, including Shia Muslims and other Muslims, are totally banned. Religious or racial nationalism (regardless of whether it is led by the government or a rebellious group) could lead to many violent forms of action stemming from religious motivation, including religious persecution. Religious minorities are especially vulnerable and can easily be exposed to persecution by the government, violence by a village community, or violence by a terrorist group.

Against this background, the persecution of Christians, one of the contemporary problems facing the international community, is finally receiving attention from the media. The Pakistani government introduced the Blasphemy Act aimed at Christians and Ahamaddiya Muslims and imposes the death penalty on any action that undermines the honor of Muslim prophets. The Burmese military government has long been fighting a civil war against Karen minorities, who are mostly either Christians or Muslims. The government has also recommended using violence or discrimination against Rohingya Muslims. Consequently, a large number of refugees are leaving the country.

In the former Yugoslavia, there has been a lot of persecution against people who belong to different groups of the same religion. This is undoubtedly because the leaders used the differences in religion to strengthen their positions. During the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, rape was systematically used to dishonor Muslim women. Many Catholics who were killed in Croatia were found with crosses carved on their foreheads. Many Catholic fathers were also killed. Mosques and churches were destroyed. In Sudan, a civil war triggered such infringements of human rights as religious persecution against people who worship the Holy Spirit, Christians, and Muslims who do not agree with the government’s interpretation of Islam. Citizens in Sudan are cruelly tortured, treated like slaves, and killed because of their religion, race, culture, and the distance between themselves and the battlefields.

As can be seen from this interim report, the current situation surrounding religious freedom in the world is far from what we can regard as optimistic. But there is no doubt that since the end of World War II, the blessings of liberty, including religious freedom, racial (national self-determination) independence, improvement in the standard of living, human rights, and democracy, have gradually and steadily reached an increasing number of people around the world. We must continue to accelerate this historical expansion of freedom through further efforts made by individuals and the international community, including the United States.


Religious freedom is at the core of American ideals (democracy and human rights). Religious freedom is an inalienable right that is given to people by God, just like other human rights. The state cannot ban religious activities by introducing laws or by deciding on a national religion.

Religious freedom means freedom for all religions, regardless of whether they are new, old, big, or small, and it means tolerance for all religions and sects. This is clearly stated in the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (November 25, 1981) and has become international conventional wisdom.

It is universally acknowledged that religious freedom has been denied and suppressed for a long time in communist countries. Racial and religious persecution in Tibet and in the Sinkiang Uighur autonomous region have attracted strong criticism from around the world.

The perennial confrontation regarding Israel and Palestine in the Middle East and the extremely troubling racial and religious confrontation in Bosnia- Herzegovina following the end of the Cold War basically stem from lack of religious freedom, in other words, intolerance toward different religions and sects.

The Preamble of the UNESCO constitution states, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defenses of peace must be constructed.” If decent people who believe in their own God try to understand the true meaning of religious freedom and try to be tolerant toward other people who believe in a different religion or who belong to different sects, roads to peaceful coexistence will automatically be built between them. This is my firm belief.

Last but not least, I would like to touch upon new developments witnessed in some countries where the state tries to protect the existing religion and sects and rejects new ones. President Clinton has expressed his concern about this development, including the introduction of the 1997 New Religions Laws by the Russian government.

In Belgium, France, and Germany, governments recently set up committees to investigate sects, partly because they were concerned about violent cults such as the Aum Shinrikyo of Japan. If these committees confine their activities to the investigation of illegal activities, there is no problem. Otherwise, such committees run the risk of denying religious freedom or freedom of belief. The Religious Freedom Advisory Committee, set up within the U.S. Department of State, issued an interim report expressing grave concern about some religious groups or sects being persecuted and religious freedom wavering in Germany. In Germany, it said, members of the Church of Scientology were closely examined, and some of them were tortured or violently threatened.

Religious freedom, which lies at the core of free human rights and democracy, is granted directly by God. We are born with this inalienable right as we are with other basic human rights, such as freedom of conscience, belief, ideas, creed, speech, publishing, assembly, and association. Religious freedom means that state power should not interfere in the choices that people make deep in their minds by saying that this religion (or sect) is good because it is old or that religion (or sect) is bad because it is new. Tolerance toward different religions or sects is an important factor in religious freedom.

I sincerely hope we can establish such religious freedom throughout the world and build up a new world order on a foundation of human rights, democracy, and peacekeeping under collective security provided by the United Nations.