Humanists at the UN have today strongly rejected claims from the Vatican delegation that ‘freedom from religion’ is not a human right.
In its first statement to the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council this afternoon, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was responding to comments made last Friday by the Vatican delegation. During a discussion (video) of the latest report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the Vatican representative, Ivan Jurkovic, had disputed that ‘freedom from religion’ is covered by international law, saying that “Of the utmost concern, the use of the term freedom from religion, which is not contemplated in the international instruments, reveals a patronising idea of religion, going beyond the mandate of the special rapporteur.”
Delivering IHEU’s response today, IHEU Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey, corrected the Vatican (known as Holy See in international fora), listing the established rights which constitute freedom from religion, and highlighted why freedom from religion is so necessary for those professing no religious beliefs around the world.
O’Casey reminded the Council that:
“freedom from coercion to adopt a religion is protected by law; freedom to have no religion is protected by law; freedom to leave a religion is protected by law; and freedom to criticise a religion is protected by law.”
She also noted that in his own comments to the Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion of Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, also corrected the Holy See. Shaheed stated categorically that freedom from religion is protected by the right to freedom of religion or belief. Dr Shaheed mentioned specifically how humanist, atheist and secular bloggers are under attack, and that the right to freedom of religion or belief protects the individual, not the religion or belief itself.
In her statement, O’Casey went on to highlight just why statements such as those made by the Holy See are so objectionable and dangerous; especially in the context of state-based hate and a culture of impunity allowing for violence against those who have no religious beliefs.
Outrageous, dangerous and false! @holyseeun need to do their homework! Many rights issues relate to enforcement of religion (e.g. blasphemy laws, apostasy laws, harmful cultural practices…), AND the Council does explicitly recognise rights of non-religious under Article 18. https://t.co/7rKarN8YLT
— IHEU (@IHEU) March 2, 2018
O’casey reminded the Council that 85 countries severely discriminate against non-religious individuals whilst seven countries were found to actively persecute the non-religious during last year. She also reminded the Council of the situation of those jailed in states such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran for being atheist or humanist, and the brutal murder of so many secularists and rationalists with impunity in Bangladesh, India and the Maldives.
O’Casey also mentioned Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Malaysia and Cyprus in their promoting state hatred against atheists and humanists.
In the light of this situation, O’Casey asked how many more humanists, atheists and secularists need to be killed, imprisoned, persecuted and disproportionately targeted for the international community to begin to understand the absolute importance of freedom of religion or belief for those with no religion? She concluded, “so long as the rest of the international community stay silent, the rights of the invisible minority of non-believers across the world will continue to be trampled upon, including by members of this Council.”
O’Casey’s statement follows in full below.
International Humanist and Ethical Union
UN Human Rights Council, 37th Session (27th February – 23rd March 2018)
General Debate on Item 3
During the Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the Holy See claimed that “freedom from religion” is not protected by international law.
We’re not sure what it meant, because: freedom from coercion to adopt a religion is protected by law; freedom to have no religion is protected by law; freedom to leave a religion is protected by law; and freedom to criticise a religion is protected by law.
And we might remember these freedoms when considering that:
- 85 countries severely discriminate against non-religious individuals; seven countries actively persecute them.
- In Bangladesh, India and the Maldives bloggers and writers have been murdered for being secularists. On Saturday, Bangladeshi physicist Muhammed Zafar was stabbed in the head for being an atheist and therefore an “enemy of Islam.”
- In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran countless individuals are imprisoned, flogged or on death row for insulting or rejecting religion.
State-based hate against those with no religious belief is also notable:
- Government officials in Malaysia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly voiced incitement to hatred against humanists and atheists.
- In Cyprus, religious education resources recommend rejection of atheism, characterizing atheists as materialistic and immoral.
The Special Rapporteur has previously observed that there exists a misconception that humanists and secularists require no protection.
We ask therefore: How many more humanists, atheists and secularists need to be killed, imprisoned, persecuted and disproportionately targeted for this misconception to change?
We thank the Special Rapporteur for his correction of the Holy See’s claims last Friday, but so long as the rest of the international community stay silent, the rights of the invisible minority of non-believers across the world will continue to be trampled upon, including by members of this Council.
 CCPR General Comment No. 22: Article 18 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience or Religion)
 http://www.dw.com/en/bangladesh-top-secular-writer-zafar-iqbal-attacked-at-university/a-42813525; http://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2018/03/04/attacked-zafar-iqbal-enemy-islam/, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/gauri-lankesh-murder-here-s-a-list-of-writers-and-journalists-killed-in-recent-years/story-LEcs4gq18AIH3WXsalDdOI.html, https://iheu.org/murder-maldives-tragic-consequence-state-democracy-obliterated/
 https://iheu.org/atheism-dangerous-unconstitutional-says-government-minister-malaysia-wrongly/, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/28/opinion/mona-eltahawy-egypts-war-on-atheism.html https://iheu.org/humanists-denounce-proposed-law-criminalize-atheism-egypt/, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-declares-all-atheists-are-terrorists-in-new-law-to-crack-down-on-political-dissidents-9228389.html