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The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is taking part again this year at the United Nations Human Rights Council as an NGO representing humanists’ broad human rights concerns with particular focus on the rights of the non-religious, secularism, and Humanist values.

Map showing data from the IHEU Freedom of Thought report on discrimination against the non-religious around the world, including 13 countries where "apostasy" is punishable by death

Map showing data from the IHEU Freedom of Thought report on discrimination against the non-religious around the world, including 13 countries where “apostasy” is punishable by death

IHEU’s new head of delegation at Geneva, Elizabeth O’Casey, spoke this morning on the right of the non-religious to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. It is a right that is all too often wrongly contracted to “religious freedom” when a speaker really means the full right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, which expressly includes non-religious views. Elizabeth explained the importance of this language and urged the UN to discuss and promote this human right in its full, inclusive sense.

The statement today drew on IHEU’s written submission to the council, “The denial of the right to free thought for those with no religion” (A/HRC/25/NGO/64), which in turn makes reference to the IHEU Freedom of Thought report.

This morning’s oral statement follows below:

United Nations Human Rights Council, 25th Session (3rd – 28th March 2014)
Interactive dialogue with the SR on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Elizabeth O’Casey, Head of IHEU’S Delegation to the UNHRC

The denial of the right to free thought for those with no religion[1]

The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for every human being is protected by Articles 18 of the ICCPR and UDHR[2].

The right to free thought is the precursor and progenitor of other fundamental freedoms. It is a complete and unlimited right, and should be protected unconditionally[3].

As the Special Rapporteur notes in his fine report, freedom of religion or belief applies to a broad variety of beliefs, not just those of predefined “classical” religions[4]. Despite this, the right to free thought of those with no religion is, by many, either forgotten or knowingly violated. Currently, 19 states punish “apostasy”; some with the potential penalty of death. Other states ban atheists from holding public office, prohibit them from identifying as atheists, or force them to subscribe to religion to gain citizenship.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur talks of “religious hatred”[5]. Quite plainly Mr President, hatred against the non-religious is present globally also. We urge the Council to recognise this fact by incorporating language that expressly acknowledges hatred against non-believers in its reports or resolutions on the issue.

We ask also that when drafting resolutions on the right to freedom of religion or belief, the Council ensures that the non-religious are one of the groups explicitly noted as having freedom to believe, and that when mentioning the persecution of religious minorities, the persecution of the non-religious is mentioned also.

The language used by the UN has fundamental significance, in its descriptive and prescriptive capacity, and in its power to influence international discourse. We urge the Special Rapporteur and Council to bear this in mind when considering the discrimination and persecution suffered by so many non-believers globally.

[Notes]

[1] This oral statement is based on the IHEU’s written statement on “The denial of the right to free thought for those with no religion” (A/HRC/25/NGO/64), which in turn draws on the findings of IHEU’s Freedom of Thought 2013  report. See: http://freethoughtreport.com/

[4] A/HRC/25/58, Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

[5] Ibid.

Elizabeth O’Casey is IHEU’s Head of Delegation at Geneva and will be a speaker at World Humanist Congress 2014 on the theme of “Freedom of Thought and Expression”.

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