Advocacy statements

Interactive dialogue with Ahmed Shaheed on freedom of expression

  • Date / 2017
  • Location / Bangladesh
  • Relevant Institution / UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Item / Item 3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights


International Humanist and Ethical Union

UN Human Rights Council, 34th Session (27th February – 31st March 2017)

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

The IHEU would like to welcome the new Special Rapporteur and thank him for his excellent report, which provides an instructive overview of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

We are particularly grateful for the reminder that the right to FoRB protects individuals – not beliefs – and that ‘belief’ includes secular, non-religious, and broader convictions. We note with gratitude his clarity on a number of issues of core concern to us, such as: that anti-blasphemy and apostasy laws contravene the right to FORB and should be abolished; and dire the situation for many people with non-religious convictions globally who are marginalised and silenced by state oppression. We thank the Rapporteur for citing our Freedom of Thought Report in this regard. [1] We remind the Council that despite General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee[2] there remains no resolution specifically against apostasy or blasphemy laws, which are widespread and deeply harmful.

The Special Rapporteur notes that resolution 16/18 reiterates that limits to free  speech are narrow – i.e. those deemed  tantamount  to  “incitement  to  imminent violence  based  on  religion  or  belief.”[3] Yet in recent years states including Malaysia, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Bangladesh, have variously either castigated atheism, ‘insult to religion’ or liberalism as threats to national security or as literal terrorism (in the case of Saudi Arabia). There is a vital distinction between incitement to violence, and the risk that people who don’t like what they hear will respond by being violent. [4] As noted by the Special Rapporteur, the Rabat Plan of Action helps makes this distinction. States must not use the unreasonableness and intolerance of some to oppress the freedoms of others. Free expression and FoRB are not opposed to each other.  They are mutually-reinforcing rights to be equally cherished.

As the Special Rapporteur’s report makes evident, there is great need to improve literacy around Article 18. We feel a high-level panel on the issue convened by the OHCHR would support this endeavour, and would be grateful to hear Dr Shaheed’s thoughts on this.



[1] The Freedom of Thought report 2016 documents 22 countries which criminalize apostasy. In 12 of those countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen) “apostasy” is in principle punishable by death. Pakistan doesn’t have a death sentence for apostasy but it does for “blasphemy”, and the threshold for blasphemy can be very low. So, in effect you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries. See http://freethoughtreport.com/

[2] A/HRC/34/50, §27

[3] A/HRC/34/50, §15

[4] The EU external guidelines on FoRB provide a good example of good-practice in this regard. https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/137585.pdf


Suggested academic reference

'Interactive dialogue with Ahmed Shaheed on freedom of expression', Humanists International

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