Article 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) outline freedoms of religion, conscience and belief as fundamental to the whole framework of human rights. However, of all human rights, those outlined so clearly and confidently in article 18 and which seem so simple at face value, they are perhaps the most complex and contested.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has, since mid 2007, been undertaking with its research partners the most comprehensive national analysis of freedom of religion and belief ever undertaken in Australia. This research has highlighted a number of important issues. For example, it has demonstrated the concerns that some groups and some individuals express when there is a public discourse about the role of faith in peoples lives, public and private; it has exposed inconsistencies in existing laws and policies; and it has encouraged debate about essentially philosophical issues relating to conflicts between private views and public responsibility, and between universal values and particular moral dilemmas (for example, when does speaking one’s own truth represent the vilification of another person or their beliefs?)
This paper will, firstly, describe the background to the project, why the research was considered worthy of undertaking and what it hopes to achieve. It will then look briefly at the international treaties and analyse what they mean and how they can be interpreted, especially given the various limited guarantees of human rights that exist in Australia. Finally, the bulk of the paper will describe the major concerns that have been raised about these human rights principles in the research consultations.