United Nations

IARF at the United Nations

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

The members of the IARF family fully support the principles laid out in the U.N.’s 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (DEIDRB) which advocates “freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief“.

Within the framework of these rights, the Declaration also encourages responsible religious practice — a cornerstone of IARF’s work.

IARF is one of 139 organisations in General Consultative status with the Economic & Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations. This status entitles IARF representatives at the U.N. in Geneva to regularly make interventions on behalf of religious minorities.

IARF also has representatives in New York who work with other non-governmental organisations in support of religious freedom.

Our  Human Rights Advocacy Strategy

Our work at the UN is based on partnership & collaboration with the wider network reach of our membership, and acting on information received from them. This enables us to offer some voice for the unheard, by taking their issues to the relevant UN human rights mechanisms – the Human Rights Council, Special Procedures, the Universal Periodic Review, and the Treaty Bodies.


IARF at the United Nations: A Brief History

The International Association for Religious Freedom has a long history of involvement with the United Nations. The organisation is first mentioned (under a former name) as one of fewer than 300 non-governmental organisations registered with the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in the 1955 UN Yearbook. In 1972, IARF applied for & was granted consultative status with ECOSOC.

United Nations building in Geneva
The Palais des Nations in Geneva, showing the Wilson Memorial Globe

The organisation was instrumental to the development of an NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which was initiated by Homer Jack in 1989. The IARF, joined by the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the International Religious Liberty Association funded a study entitled “The Question of a United Nations Convention on Religious Intolerance.” The study, based on interviews with UN staff, diplomats and NGOs, was inconclusive on the advisability of working specifically to get the UN to adopt a convention as such, but those interviewed for the study indicated strongly that the issue of religious intolerance was an important one which should receive serious attention.

Following publication of the study, a group of NGOs met regularly to follow the issue and to provide support for the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance (this title was later changed by the Commission on Human Rights). The Special Rapporteur was initially appointed in 1986 to report regularly to the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly about violations of religious freedom.

In 1992, the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief (CoFRoB) applied for and was granted formal status with ECOSOC as one of about 20 NGO Committees associated with ECOSOC’s Council of NGOs. IARF Representatives to the UN have served in various major roles with CoFRoB. Homer Jack provided inspiration and energy, especially in the early days of CoFRoB. Sue Nichols was CoFRoB’s first President, and has since also served as CoFRoB’s Secretary and Treasurer.

The IARF has been involved in commemoration of the UN’s Annual Day for Freedom of Religion or Belief, which has been observed each year since 1995 to honor the anniversary of the General Assembly’s “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.” The Declaration, adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 25, 1981, expands on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees universal freedom of religion or belief. Major speakers among many NGOs, religious leaders, activists and scholars have included:

  • the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson;
  • the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (April 1993 – July 2004), Professor Abdelfattah Amor;
  • author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington;
  • members of USCIRF (the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) Felice Gaer and David Saperstein.


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