During her first statement at the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s (IHEU) head of delegation, Elizabeth O’Casey, highlighted to the Council why secular democracy is essential in the protection and promotion of human rights. The issue of secularism has not before been discussed at the Human Rights Council, and O’Casey sought to promote a better understanding of the term and demonstrate why is it key within the human rights context.
Her statement follows below in full:
International Humanist and Ethical Union
UN Human Rights Council, 30th Session (14th September – 2nd October 2015)
General Debate, Item 3
In his excellent report on the role of prevention in the promotion and protection of human rights, the High Commissioner emphasises human rights education as an essential component in fostering inclusivity, respect for others, and in the enhancement of participation in the decision-making process.
We suggest that along with education, a further – perhaps more easily misconstrued but no less essential – component is a secular democracy.
It is essential because it is necessary for guaranteeing inclusivity and ensuring four principles underscoring human rights: freedom, equality, dignity and universalism.
It is necessary for individual freedom. Its origins are rooted in the principle of free thought, from which many other rights guaranteeing freedoms emanate – such as freedom of religion or belief and expression.
It is necessary for equality. Underpinning secularism is the equality of all under the law and a rejection of discriminatory traditional, cultural or religious practices.
It is necessary for human dignity. It identifies individuals as equal citizens and not merely members of a religious or non-religious group; this gives dignity to the individual as a human rights bearer, not to be stereotyped as a member of a particular group or fetishized for the sake of inherently divisive identity politics.
It is necessary for universalism. Whilst a secular democracy creates space for dialogue and the recognition of diversity, it asks that arguments are presented in universal terms so as to ensure mutual understanding. It is upon these universal foundations our rights and the vocabulary common to all humankind are grounded.
Secular democracy provides a backdrop essential for the prevention of human rights violations and provides the conditions for many of those requirements set out in 24/16. Human Rights will only flourish in a political framework where people are seen as human rights agents and not defined primarily by their beliefs or arbitrary characteristics [such as gender or race]. Accordingly, we call on the High Commissioner and Council to explore the role of secularism in the protection of human rights.