Freedom of Thought ?

In half of the 193 states on this globe people are being kept prisoner due to their religious beliefs, political convictions, race, or gender. The other half of humankind calm themselves with the moral supremacy they proclaim to have gained over non-democratic states for observance of human rights. And indeed, much has been reached since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued in 1948 and in the process

of its implementation in the law of nations. But do Western societies actually live up to theirself-defined ethical standards, or are the moral merits undeserved that the democratic reasoning ascribes itself? It seems that the vertical division does not hold, and that there is tacit violation of human rights not only in remote corners but also in unsuspected realms.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ensures the fundamental right to liberty to all human beings, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the right to freedom of opinion and expression (Articles 3, 18 and 19). These are guaranteed to everyone "without distinction of any kind" (Article 2). They are inviolable and indivisible rights. No legitimate limitations may be imposed on holding a belief. Manifestation of belief may only be restricted when "it is necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others". Unless a danger of this kind needs to be averted, no intrusion is justified1. It is, of course, also quite irrelevant whether the belief or opinion held is true or not for the individual to be entitled to the rights in question. In fact, it is one of the principles of reason that its utterances be disputable.

Whence then the pressure on some to refrain from their thoughts and beliefs in the so-called open societies? Involuntary detention in psychiatric institutions on the allegation of insanity is, in a host of cases, a manner of imposing restrictions to the rights to liberty and to freedom of thought and belief. The woman who believes she induced the fall of the Berlin wall and firmly states her belief, without ever presenting a danger to anyone including herself, can tell a story about the pressure to give up her convictions. Her life has been an Odyssey between section and drug treatment with the explicit purpose of making her abandon those opinions. As a person stigmatized as a mental patient her fundamental rights have been severely violated. Is she, in a bizarre way, a prisoner of conscience? In prevention of what crime is she locked up? Thus, ex negativo we understand the odd necessity to confirm, as it is done in the ‘Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illnesses and for the Improvement of Mental Health Care’2 that "every person has the right to exercise all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

Society protects itself from deviance. The line between acceptability and alleged ‘disorder of thought form’ is rigidly drawn by the stronger party. If it cannot be, it must not be - in defence of this axiom, reason is administered through force and coercion by the medical system. Doctors are presumed to be competent judges and authorities in matters of thought and belief in that they are legally designated to certify whether someone is sound or not. Drug treatment serves to blur and disrupt the belief that there is a right to freedom of thought and that, of course, is at variance with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No evidence has been produced that there is such a thing as mental illness apart from certain symptoms; hence the serious quest for a yet-to-be-discovered biological cause, like a genetic defect.

Forced conformity is an illness from which reason needs to convalesce. This is in accordance with the spirit of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which was set forth as a response "to the barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind" in this century of war and genocide (Preamble). The Declaration is a document to promote liberty and tolerance while asserting the universality of the principles it advances. If it allowed for discrimination on the grounds of reason, it would expose itself to a deep self-contradiction, for it would then restrict the validity of the principles it pronounces as universal. Mental health legislation concentrates on the right to treatment and keeps silent about the right to freedom from fear called for in the Declaration. The concept of psychiatric mental illness and the coercion which impairs the freedom of thought have to be reconsidered in terms of violation of human rights.

This requires an investigation. Let him ask back who periodically turns into Jesus Christ and enters a psychiatric institution to receive the cruel tortures and humiliations men have done to each other throughout the centuries. Who is then bound up, but perfectly able to determine for whose sake.

Renate Bauer

1 This text is indebted to Richard Gosden "Shrinking the Freedom of Thought. How Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment Violates Basic Human Rights". In: Journal of Human Rights and Technology, vol. 1, February 1997.

2 Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illnesses and the Improvement of Mental Health Care, G.A. res. 46/119, 46 U.N. GAORSupp. (no.49) at 189, U.N. Doc. A/46/49(1991).