Advocacy statements

The Durban Declaration and apostasy

  • Date / 2018
  • Location / Iran
  • Relevant Institution / UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Item / Item 9: Follow-up and implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action

International Humanist and Ethical Union


UN Human Rights Council, 39rd Session (18th – 20th September 2018)
General Debate: Item 9

Kacem El Ghazzali

The Durban Declaration observes that, “religion, spirituality and belief […] can contribute to the promotion of the inherent dignity and worth of the human person and to the eradication of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

It seems we need to remind many States that “belief” includes atheism, humanism and freethinking,[1] since freethinkers and atheists face imprisonment, systematic persecution, discrimination, social ostracism, as well as violence and the threat of violence by vigilantes or militant groups.[2]

In at least 12 countries around the world “apostasy,” which is the act of leaving or changing religion, is punishable by death: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen.

In Saudi Arabian law, to “promote atheist thought in any form” is to be a terrorist. The Saudi ambassador to the UN Mr Abdallah Al-Mouallimi has defended this law, saying that professing atheism in public is inherently subversive.[3] [In April 2017, Ahmad Al Shamri was sentenced to death “for atheism” by the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia.[4]]

The right to freedom of religion or belief includes the right to leave religion entirely and to freely identify with whatever label fits for the individual – including atheist, humanist, agnostic, etc.

The IHEU welcomes the human rights council resolution of September 2017, which demanded the abolition of the death penalty for apostasy. “Apostasy” should never be treated as criminal offence, let alone be punished by the death penalty. We call on all the States mentioned above through this Council to comply with their human rights obligations and abolish all apostasy laws.


[1] Human Righst Committee General Comment 22, http://www.refworld.org/docid/453883fb22.html

[2] https://freethoughtreport.com/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/iheunion/videos/528173524296952/

[4] https://iheu.org/humanists-call-saudi-arabia-release-man-sentenced-death-atheism/

Suggested academic reference

'The Durban Declaration and apostasy', Humanists International

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