|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.|
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is an "easy case" in the human rights catalogue. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion has long traditions in both domestic and international law. There are even grounds to state that the origin of the general idea of human rights lies in the long history of protecting religious minorities.
The unproblematic character of the traditional nucleus of the human right in question is apparently the reason that there has been little research regarding the right and that human rights complaints to supervisory international organs have relatively seldom touched on this right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not define the terms "thought," "conscience," and "religion."
States have not considered it difficult to allow their citizens the freedom to think. The difficulties start when we come to the right to express one's conviction, the right to organize as an community in order to promote a religion or belief, and the right to act in accordance with one's conscience in cases where domestic legal systems seems to require uniform behavior irrespective of the different convictions of individuals. The real problem concerning freedom of thought, conscience and religion does not concern the nucleus of the right itself (the freedom of an inner state of mind), but issues that also relate to other human rights. In this sense, freedom of conscience gives clear evidence that human rights cannot be protected separately from each other but are realized only as a totality.
The details of this article militate against any presumption of a national or state-sponsored religion. The result is a total freedom of religion for members of both majority and minority religious groups. The right to change one's belief also figures in the discussion of the Saudi Arabian abstention.1
1. Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (1999) 333.
Adapted from Martin Scheinin in Asbjorn Eide et al, Eds., The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Commentary (1992) 263-264.