Foes of freedom

  • The draft constitution denies people the freedom to choose and change their religion
- SARAL SHRESTHA, Kathmandu
Foes of freedom

Aug 11, 2015-

Around the globe, countries fall into three different categories: first, there are countries that blatantly limit the freedom of religion within their borders; second, there are countries that profess and pretend that there is freedom of religion, but their laws state otherwise; and third, there are countries that truly provide freedom of religion for their citizens. In light of the draft constitution, which category will Nepal join? 

Some blindly argue that the draft constitution gives freedom of religion and that there is nothing to fear, but how can this be when Article 31(3) explicitly criminalises any “act to convert another person from one religion to another”? If the lawmakers do not change this provision, Nepal could sadly just become one of those countries that merely profess to have freedom of religion, when in reality, its laws indicate otherwise. So will Nepal choose to draft a constitution that actually provides freedom of religion or will it leave Article 31(3) unchanged and thereby negate any legitimate freedom of religion?

The nature of religion

There are two things that everyone can agree on: forcibly converting or coercing someone into converting is wrong and should not be tolerated, and conversion to another religion or no religion is often impossible without the involvement of 

others. As such, the constitution should clearly prohibit forcible or coerced conversions, while at the same time protect the right to convert and not limit the freedom to share, change, and choose one’s religion. 

Religion is communal by its very nature. Therefore, a person’s decision to accept a particular religion or no religion (ie, convert) can only take place with the assistance of others from within that religious community. Very few convert to 

Buddhism without talking to Buddhists first and learning about the Buddhist religion. Likewise, very few become a Hindu without being taught the ways of Hinduism. Yet, Article 31(3) has criminalised this interchange and discussion about one’s religion.  

No religious conversion is possible without several “act(s) to convert another person from one religion to another.” Since the proposed draft of the constitution criminalises these acts, it makes conversion impossible—and thereby, it completely denies people the freedom to choose and change their religion. Therefore, Article 31(3) could severely undermine freedom of religion in Nepal. 

Fundamental rights

In 1948, following the atrocities committed in the Second World War, world leaders throughout the international community 

came together with one primary purpose—to create a declaration of fundamental human rights that all of humanity could agree upon. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was thus drafted and adopted. It is now considered to be 

international customary law that all countries are subject to abide by. 

The UDHR 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 choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others 

and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” If “any act to convert another person from one religion to another” is made criminal, the people of Nepal will never truly enjoy the freedoms listed in Article 18 of the UDHR. Moreover, Nepal’s constitution will violate a primary and foundational source of international human rights law. 

According to the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), there are ten countries that outlaw religious conversion where the religious rights of Hindus are systematically violated. The HAF is most concerned about countries where Hindus do not have 

the freedom to convert. Should Nepal’s constitution outlaw religious conversion in the same way that these ten countries have? Under Article 31(3), even the expression of one’s beliefs would be a criminal offense if it leads to the conversion of another person. The freedom to share, choose, and change one’s religion are among the fundamental rights of man, and since these freedoms always involve acts to convert a person from one religion to another, the draft constitution violates the UDHR, along with numerous other international human rights agreements (e.g. the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). 

Dangers of restriction

Furthermore, there is ample evidence to suggest that heavy restrictions imposed upon the freedom of religion and expression could lead to instability by empowering radical elements of dominant religious groups to marginalise and prosecute members of religious minorities. The instability caused by this marginalisation could have many repercussions ranging from negative international press to painful economic implications such as reduced foreign investment and tourism.

The question remains: will Nepal choose to join the countries around the globe that truly do provide religious freedom? Or will it leave Article 31(3) unchanged and simply profess that such freedoms exist in Nepal? Do the citizens of Nepal desire to live in a country where they are free to choose any religion or no religion without the fear of persecution or prosecution? As there is no freedom of religion without the right to share, choose and change one’s religion, Article 31(3) of the draft constitution must be amended.Shrestha is a coordinator at Dharmik Chautari, an interfaith group 

Published: 11-08-2015 12:17

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