What is Article 18?

“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.” 

What is the history behind the declaration?
The traumatic events of the Second World War brought home that human rights are not always universally respected. The extermination of almost 17 million people during the Holocaust, including 6 million Jews, horrified the entire world. After the war, governments worldwide made a concerted effort to foster international peace and prevent conflict. This resulted in the establishment of the United Nations in June 1945.
In 1948, representatives from the 50 member states of the United Nations came together under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt (First Lady of the United States 1933-1945) to devise a list of all the human rights that everybody across the world should enjoy.
On 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations announced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – 30 rights and freedoms that belong to all of us. Seven decades on and the rights they included continue to form the basis for all international human rights law.
Eleanor Roosevelt was heavily involved in championing civil rights and social activism. She was appointed chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights which drafted the UDHR. On the tenth anniversary of the UDHR, Eleanor gave a speech at the United Nations called ‘Where Do Human Rights Begin?’. Part of her speech has become famous for capturing the reason why human rights are for every one of us, in all parts of our daily lives:
‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.’

What does it contain?

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs, as well as the freedom to express one’s beliefs in public or in private, either alone or with others. Additionally, this article prohibits any coercion that would impair one’s freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of their choosing. This right is considered a fundamental human right that should be protected and respected by governments and societies around the world.

This is important because Article 18:

  • Protects individual freedom: Article 18 safeguards the individual’s right to choose their own beliefs and express them without fear of repression or persecution.
  • Promotes tolerance: By recognizing freedom of religion or belief, this article promotes tolerance and encourages societies to respect different religious and non-religious views.
  • Prevents discrimination: Article 18 prohibits any discrimination based on religion or belief, ensuring that individuals are not excluded from society or disadvantaged due to their beliefs.
  • Encourages dialogue: The freedom to express one’s beliefs in public or private, alone or with others, encourages open and respectful dialogue between individuals of different backgrounds and beliefs.
  • Supports human dignity: Protecting the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is crucial to upholding human dignity and ensuring that individuals can live according to their own values and principles.

More background
The UDHR, with its total of 30 articles, was presented not as a legally binding instrument but as an aspirational document outlining essential guidelines on fundamental human rights, and with the stated objective of realising “a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations”. Eight nations from the assembly abstained from the vote to adopt the document, but none dissented.
Although initially not envisaged as creating binding legal obligations, Article 18 has over time acquired a normative character within general international law, arguably binding all states. It established a platform for articulating and elaborating the provisions on freedom of religion and religious non-discrimination in the (1966) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the (1966) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which together are known as the “International Bill of Rights”.