IHEU at UN: Don’t distort concept of ‘secularism’ to clampdown on freedom

  • post Type / Advocacy News
  • Date / 14 September 2016

In the wake of the ‘burkini’ debate in France over the summer months and increasing levels of oppression in much of Central Asia on the grounds of promoting secularist and anti-extremist values, the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s (IHEU) director of advocacy spoke to the UN Human Rights Council about the importance of secularism and not misusing it to undermine the right to freedom of thought, religion, belief and expression.

Elizabeth O’Casey made the statement during a debate with the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

Her statement follows in full, below:


International Humanist and Ethical Union

UN Human Rights Council, 33rd Session (13th September – 30th September 2016)
General Debate on Item 2
Elizabeth O’Casey


We thank the OHCHR for its report on the panel on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism. We still share the concerns articulated by many CSOs at the time of the panel concerning the lack of agreed definitions, and room for human rights abuse when it comes to “prevention.”

As an organisation specifically tasked with promoting human rights within a secular context we are also deeply concerned at the way in which in some states have been dealing with extremism by instrumentalising and distorting the concept of ‘secularism’ in order to undermine the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

In some Central Asian states, particularly Tajikistan, we have seen how the notion of secularism has been mixed with measures seeking to combat extremism leading to crackdowns on wearing Islamic dress, sporting beards, practising religious rituals in public spaces and imposed compulsory religious censorship.

The banning of the ‘burkini’ by local authorities across France is another stark example of a harmful conflation of anti-extremism and secularism and based on double standards in curbing the rights to free expression, religion and belief. Talk from the French authorities about “provocation,” “offence” and “public morals,” are mirror images of the type of rhetoric we have highlighted at the Council before in terms of being used by authorities in many Islamic states as justification for enforcing conservative dress codes.

Properly understood, political and legal secularism is the best potential framework in which to provide the conditions for the flourishing of human rights since it insists on all people are seen as human rights agents, regardless of their beliefs. Disproportionately limiting the right to freedom of expression through bans on clothing, veils or facial hair – particularly when targeted at one minority – devalues and debases the value of secularism.

We again ask that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) explores the role of secularism in the protection of human rights, in the hope of preventing this harmful instrumentalisation of secular values in order to pursue and oppressive agenda or undermine human rights.

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