Isabel Russo and Andrew Copson read the final text of the Oxford Declaration to World Humanist Congress 2014

Isabel Russo and Andrew Copson read the final text of the Oxford Declaration to World Humanist Congress 2014

The delegates at World Humanist Congress assented on 10th August and the IHEU General Assembly approved on 11th August the Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression.

Drafted and amended after contributions from delegates by the Resolutions Committee of the World Humanist Congress, the full and final text of the Oxford Declaration follows below. (Translations at the bottom of the page.)


The Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression

The 2014 World Humanist Congress, gathered in Oxford, UK, on 8-10 August 2014, adopted the following declaration on freedom of thought and expression:

All around the world and at all times, it is freedom of thought and freedom of expression that have proved the most essential conditions for human flourishing, but every generation must face new threats to these fundamental freedoms. Knowing this, we maintain:

The right to freedom of thought and belief is one and the same right for all. The human right articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elaborated elsewhere is and should be a single right, indivisible, protecting the dignity and freedom of all people by protecting their right to their personal beliefs, whatever those beliefs, religious or non-religious. As Article 7 of the Declaration says, ‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.’

No one anywhere should ever be forced into or out of a belief. Freedom of thought implies the right to develop, hold, examine and manifest our beliefs without coercion, and to express opinions and a worldview whether religious or non-religious, without fear of coercion. It includes the right to change our views or to reject beliefs previously held, or previously ascribed. Pressure to conform to ideologies of the state or to doctrines of religion is a tyranny. Laws that prescribe or criminalise beliefs contravene human dignity and must be abolished. Every citizen of every state has the right to demand the repeal of such laws, and all states should support those, wherever they are, who demand that their social freedoms and personal liberty be upheld.

The right to freedom of expression is global in its scope. The human right articulated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. No parochial nationalism or state insecurity should prevent the global human community from fulfilling the promise of our new technologies, our mass media, our social media, and our personal access to transnational networks. States should invest adequate resources to allow their citizens’ participation in this global conversation.

There is no right not to be offended, or not to hear contrary opinions. Respect for people’s freedom of belief does not imply any duty or requirement to respect those beliefs. The expression of opposition to any beliefs, including in the form of satire, ridicule or condemnation in all media and forms is vital to critical discourse and any restraint that is exercised in this expression must be in accordance of article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The best response to the expression of a view we disagree with is to reply to it.Violence and censorship are never legitimate responses. All laws that criminalise language on grounds of ‘blasphemy’ or of offence to beliefs and values impede human freedom and should be abolished.

States must not restrict thought and expression merely to protect the government from criticism. States that criminalise criticism of government policies or officials as treasonous or seditious, or as threats to security, are not “strong governments” championing the best interests of the public, but censorious bullies exercising tyranny in their own interests. States should ensure in the law of the land, in their education systems, and in the conduct of their national life generally, that freedom of thought and expression are actively promoted and pursued to the real benefit of every member of society.

Freedom of belief is absolute but the freedom to act on a belief is not. As responsible members of a community we accept that our freedom to act must sometimes be restricted, if and only if our actions would undermine the rights and freedoms of others. Freedom of belief cannot legitimise overriding the principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law. These balances can be hard to strike but with a focus on freedom and human dignity, we believe legislators and judiciaries can strike them in a progressive manner.

We assert the principles of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and secularism as providing the firmest foundation for the development of open societies where freedom of thought and expression will be protected and promoted.

We commit ourselves in all our work to uphold and promote existing rights to freedom of thought and expression within the international human rights framework and to resist national and international restrictions on the right of individuals to think for themselves freely and to openly express their views without fear.

We urge each of our member organizations and humanists worldwide to uphold these values in their own lives; to promote in their communities greater public understanding of the rights to freedom of thought and freedom of expression for all; to urge their governments to promote these values; and to join with humanists and others globally in defending and advancing them to the benefit of all humanity.


Translations available

Armenian / Հայերեն
via the Armenian Secular and Humanist Society, Հայաստանի Աշխարհիկ և Մարդասիրական Միություն

German / Deutsch
via the Humanist Association of Germany, Humanistischer Verband Deutschlands (HVD)

Icelandic / Íslenska
via Siðmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association

Italian / Italiano
via the Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics, Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti (UAAR)

Maltese / Malti
via the Malta Humanist Association

Russian / Pусский
via the Russian Humanist Society, Российское гуманистическое общество

Slovak / Slovensky
via EthosEtika Tolerancia Humanizmus Občianstvo Sekularizmus

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9 Responses to Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression

  1. Rob Tielman says:

    An excellent statement!

  2. Mark Lofts says:

    What, if anything, is meant by term ‘rule of law’ in your declaration? Does it merely mean legal tort law as applied to physical injuries? Almost certainly not I would think, otherwise the phrase is merely empty.

    In Western socio-political circles it means ‘capitalist property rights’.

    In philosophy & politics it is usually taken to mean ‘natural law’ as in the claim that the universe is entirely lawful – there being, in consequence, no such thing as chance or fundamental disorder in nature – though deterministic chaos, the notion of apparent disorder overlying a hidden order is not excluded.

    So which meanings of ‘rule of law’ are intended here?

    • Profile photo of IHEU Admin IHEU Admin says:

      Hi Mark. The usual meaning of the ‘rule of law’ in discussion about society and politics is the principle that states should be governed according to the law (as opposed to arbitrary or authoritarian decree). Think “No one is above the law.” It’s not about physical or scientific laws but about the law of the land applying equally, consistently, and with accountability. (Of course, that doesn’t mean there can’t be bad laws, which one might advocate to reform!)

  3. John Ricketts says:

    Thank you for issuing the final version of The Oxford Declaration.

    I attended wgc14, and to hear Isabel and Andrew present the Declaration was for me a moving conclusion to an unforgettable three days.

  4. Of course open debate is essential for free and open societies. Voicing one’s opinions is central to the very concept of Democracy: “I disagree totally with what you say but defend to the death your right to say it.” But more is needed.
    To speak truth to power is fine, but too often futile, and ignored. And there are no Democracies anywhere in the world. For the people of the world to weigh, measure, analyze, and agree or disagree on statements, and then implement the conclusions and actions inferred or plainly stated in those freely made statements they must be able to vote on their implementation. The Constitutions of the world all have “Representatives” making the laws, voting for the laws, under which the people live. The legislative function must evolve, and devolve, back to the source of its power: the people. The people have avoided their legislative responsibility throughout history, consciously or other wise. The rationale behind Republic governments has always been “We all can’t fit under the town’s central tree and openly debate and discuss our common needs and wants and then make legislation.” Today we live under the branches of our communication satellites and debate freely and often on all topics. We also vote electronically for television entertainers on a variety of shows. The “ways and means ” of debating and voting on the laws under which we live is available. We should cease begging our legislatures, with our free speech, to implement the our desires, hopes, wishes, and considered judgement, and vote directly on the laws ourselves. See assocactualdemocracy.com.

  5. Iddo says:

    Regarding the text:
    “Violence and censorship are never legitimate responses. All laws that criminalise language on grounds of ‘blasphemy’ or of offence to beliefs and values impede human freedom and should be abolished.”

    I think this should be circumscribed to say that public expressions that actively incite violence and hate crimes against a person or a group impede human freedom and justify the use of force to arrest the inciters and stop their anti-humanist and destructive message from spreading.

    Otherwise, this article would condone the public expression of calls to commit terrorist acts against innocent people or calls to elect a fascist government. I am sure Humanism must *vigorously oppose* by any and all possible means the kinds of expressions as those publicly advocated by the Nazi party in the 1930s’ and indeed in some places to this day, and similarly any calls to violent terrorist acts in the name of Islamic Jihad, or public calls to assassinate certain individuals.

    • Profile photo of IHEU Admin IHEU Admin says:

      Hi Iddo. The lines you quote target kinds of law that suppress legitimate free speech merely on religiously defined grounds, or merely on grounds of “offence” to beliefs and values. In saying that these laws are wrong, and that such expressions should be protected (i.e. “There is no right not to be offended, or not to hear contrary opinions”), there is no implication that incitement to violence, terror and hatred are welcome! Or to put it another way, in saying that there is a right to expressions that others may find insulting, is not synonymous with saying that there is a right to expressions of hatred or calls to violence.

      Indeed, as you say, calls to commit violence or enact hatred etc are unwelcome and should be resisted and confronted wherever possible (see the previous congress’s Oslo Declaration on Peace for example).

      However, the present declaration does not address laws prohibiting expressions which genuinely constitute incitement to violence or hatred. The present declaration focuses instead on the intersection of “thought and expression” and therefore on laws pertaining to such things as mere “insult”, “offence” or “blasphemy” against the thoughts and beliefs of others.

      • Iddo says:

        Thank you for your reply.
        Of course I know this was the intention. I still think that for a declaration of such importance, a clarification is needed, either by refining the text to make it more precise, or by prefacing it with the kind of explanation you provided regarding the scope of the declaration; especially in light of the absolute phrasing “violence and censorship are NEVER legitimate responses”. They are, in fact, sometimes legitimate in order to protect humanist values. We do not want to support hate mongerers hiding behind “freedom of speech” – an all too common phenomenon in Europe and North America, where some people who support humanist values are sometimes honestly confused about what limits to free speech ARE justified on the grounds of humanist values, in order to protect those values from the actions of people antagonistic to them.

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