Study Topic




No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair their freedom to have a religion or belief of their choice.


This paragraph is a strong statement protecting the underlying principle of human rights and freedom of religion or belief, to believe or not to believe, as one so chooses. The United Nations takes no position on the existence of God or the ultimate meaning of life. It is committed to the inherent dignity, equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which includes protection for all religious and non-religious beliefs under the international rule of law.


Understand the full meaning of the terms in paragraph 1.2 as a defense against all forms of discrimination based on religion or belief. To understand how these terms are applied in a community.

  • Coercion
  • Impairment
  • Choice

Term 1.2.1: Coercion

The definition of coerce or coercion is to force to act in a given manner. To dominate, restrain or control by force. To bring about by force. Article 18(2) and paragraph 1.2.1 of the 1981 U.N. Declaration, bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert. Policies or practices having the same intention or effect, for example, those restricting access to education, medical care, employment or the rights guaranteed by Article 25 and other provisions of the Covenant are similarly inconsistent with Article 18(2). The same protection is enjoyed by holders of all beliefs of a non-religious nature.” 12

There are states where apostasy, meaning the abandonment of one’s religious faith, is not permitted. It carries severe penalties including death. This obviously is a violation against term 1.2.1. Prohibition of coercion also includes policies or practices having the same intention or effect as physical or psychological violence, such as, for example, restricting access to education, medical care, employment or other rights and freedoms. A linked issue here is the question of proselytism and what is or is not considered “coercive” in attracting a person to a belief. This involves monitoring ways in which religions or beliefs reach out to convert the outsider in appropriate and/or inappropriate ways.

Related Examples

  • Afghanistan: “Because of the climate of intolerance and religious discrimination in Afghanistan resulting from the Taliban policy, religious minorities, in particular the Sikhs, are beginning to flee the country. These departures are reportedly due to Taliban measures to force conversion to Islam or to place restrictions on women, such as confining them to their homes or requiring them to wear the burqa in public.”

  • Greece: There is a famous case, Kokkinakis vs. Greece, in which the European Court of Human Rights considered a Greek law which had led to the imprisonment of a Jehovah’s Witness for seeking to convert a Greek Orthodox believer. Proselytism remains a vague and undefined area in religious human rights, where freedom of expressing one’s belief to another is an appropriate, fundamental freedom and right as long as coercion isn’t involved.

Learning Experiences

Identifying coercion by the state or a religion or belief is not easy to define in a community. It may exist in obvious forms of discrimination in employment, housing, etc to induce people to either join or leave a religion or belief. Or, it may be more subtle psychological suggestions as to what may happen to a person if they decide to join or leave a religion or belief. Interview religious leaders or invite them to address a group to discuss their understanding of apostasy and proselytism. Contact government offices in your community to see if there are rules or regulations against coercion. Religious leaders and government officials may be reluctant to use a negative term like coercion. This should not deter monitors from looking for explicit forms of intolerance against minority religions or beliefs, or against those who are needy and psychologically vulnerable.

Term 1.2.2: Impairment

To impair is to diminish in strength, value, quality or quantity. There is a prohibition not only against all explicit uses of force, but also against any subtle forms that may damage a person’s ability to choose a religion or belief. This is hard to discern and often less explicit and more subtle impairment is in the eye of the beholder. It may relate more to bigotry and intolerance. A bigot is any person or institution that is intolerant, especially in matters relating to religion, race or politics. This can be a wearing down or gradual discouragement of a person’s ability to choose a religion or belief.

Related Examples

  • United States: The United States Federal Government started a program in 2002 called “Faith-based Initiatives.” It gives federal grants to religious institutions and organizations to provide social services. This is an admirable goal, to help deliver a wide range of services to the poor. But there is concern that in the delivery of services, may involve “subtle” forms of impairment and encouragement to change one’s religion or belief. This requires a rigorous monitoring process praising the positives and investigating to be sure the clients who in many cases are desperate for services are not denied choice.

Learning Experiences

In the United States, check to see if an “Office of Faith-based Initiatives,” or a similar program run by a religious organization is located in the community. Interview persons responsible for the program and do an on-site interviews with clients. In other countries, find programs that are sponsored by a religion or belief and interview them to see how it is run, what services they are providing and whether or not subtle forms of intolerance are present.

Term 1.2.3 Choice

The definition and meaning of choice is discussed in 1.1.2. Discuss the meaning of the term, here, in light of the prohibition of all forms of coercion, including impairment that would prevent a person from freedom to choose a religion or belief of their choice.



No one shall be subject to coercion, which would impair their freedom to have a religion or belief of their choice.

This paragraph identifies boundaries against both intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. It sets the limits to such all the way from ultimate uses of force, to more subtle forms of impairment. Later, in Article 2.1, you will learn who can be accused of allegedly committing such acts against whom. For now, break down the terms of 1.2 and write ways in which they are applied in your community in the notes below.


Term 1.2.1: Coercion

Explain the meaning of the term. Give some examples of how coercion may have been applied in your community.

Term 1.2.2: Impairment

Explain the meaning of the term. Research a religious or non-religious based program serving the poor and evaluate below how it does or does not impair the choice of those who are receiving the services.

Term 1.2.3: Choice You learned the meaning of the word choice in 1.1.2. Explain in your own words below how it applies in your community in the context of coercion and impairment.

12. U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/48/CRP.2/Rev.1 back